Surgery in space: the future of robotic telesurgery
The origins of telemedicine date back to the early 1970s, and combined with the concept of minimally invasive surgery, the idea of surgical robotics was born in the late 1980s based on the principle of providing active telepresence to surgeons. Many research projects were initiated, creating a set of instruments for endoscopic telesurgery, while visionary surgeons built networks for telesurgical patient care, demonstrated transcontinental surgery, and performed procedures in weightlessness. Long-distance telesurgery became the testbed for new medical support concepts of space missions.
This article provides a complete review of the milestone experiments in the field, and describes a feasible concept to extend telemedicine beyond Earth orbit. With a possible foundation of an extraplanetary human outpost either on the Moon or on Mars, space agencies are carefully looking for effective and affordable solutions for life-support and medical care. The major challenges of surgery in weightlessness are also discussed.
Teleoperated surgical robots have the potential to shape the future of extreme health care both in space and on Earth. Besides the apparent advantages, there are some serious challenges, primarily the difficulty of latency with teleoperation over long distances. Advanced virtualization and augmented-reality techniques should help human operators to adapt better to the special conditions. To meet safety standards and requirements in space, a three-layered architecture is recommended to provide the highest quality of telepresence technically achievable for provisional exploration missions.
Surgical robotic technology is an emerging interdisciplinary field, with a great potential impact on many areas of health care, including telemedicine. With the proposed three-layered concept—relying only on currently available technology—effective support of long-distance telesurgery and human space missions are both feasible.