SRI International completes collaborative demonstration of remote robotic surgical system aboard NEEMO 9 undersea space station

Menlo Park 20 April 2006In collaboration with NASA, the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), and the Canadian Centre for Minimal Access Surgery, SRI International has successfully demonstrated a remote robotic surgical system as part of the ninth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) on board the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, located 60 feet underwater and off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. The Aquarius laboratory is the only operational undersea research habitat in the world.


The 18-day mission, which began on April 3 and ended April 20, marks the first time in history an entire robotic surgical system was transported to an extreme environment and manipulated successfully from afar. The mission was defined by Dr. Mehran Anvari, a surgeon and professor in the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery and McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. The mission was funded by TATRC under the terms of a co-operative agreement and enabled by SRI's robotic surgical system.

The SRI robotic surgical system is designed to be small enough for compact storage and easy assembly should an astronaut require emergency surgery while in space. SRI's robotic surgical interface was controlled by Dr. Anvari in Canada while the surgical robot was aboard the Aquarius laboratory, approximately 1500 miles away in Florida. From the control console, Dr. Anvari performed the complex surgical task of vascular suturing, or stitching up a vein.

The medical procedures simulated may one day be used to respond to emergencies on the International Space Station, the moon, or Mars. The technology is also applicable in remote regions on earth where there is limited medical care.

Major goals of the NEEMO 9 mission were to evaluate the use of telerobotics in performing emergency diagnostic, surgical and interventional therapies in a confined and extreme environment, as is found in space flight, and to investigate open questions and operational concepts that will enable NASA to return humans to the moon as part of the President's Vision for Space Exploration.

"Previous research has shown that surgeons can adapt to latencies of 200 - 500ms", stated Mark Reagan, NEEMO 9 Mission Director, NASA. "However, common knowledge dictates that time delays greater than 500 ms or half a second, would make such a task impossible. This mission successfully demonstrated a 2 second time delay, equivalent to the time it would take for the signal to travel to the Moon. This truly was a noteworthy scientific achievement."

"In remote telesurgery, a surgeon controls a multi-armed robot located at the patient's bedside from a distant location using a telecommunications network", stated Thomas Low, SRI director, Medical Systems Programme. "This mission demonstrated another practical application of this important technology, which has the potential to provide emergency medical and surgical care to astronauts during space flights, soldiers injured in battle, and patients living in remote regions on earth where there are no physicians."

SRI pioneered telepresence surgery technology in the 1980s with the development of a telerobotic system that offers a surgeon the full sensory experience of conventional hands-on surgical procedures while being minimally invasive to the patient. In 1995, SRI spun off Intuitive Surgical Inc. Today, Intuitive Surgical is a global expert in the rapidly emerging field of robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery.

Silicon Valley-based SRI International is one of the world's major independent research and technology development organisations. Founded as Stanford Research Institute in 1946, SRI has been meeting the strategic needs of clients for 60 years. The non-profit research institute performs client-sponsored research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, and private foundations. In addition to conducting contract R&D, SRI licenses its technologies, forms strategic partnerships, and creates spin-off companies.

For crew journals, live webcam views, images and aquanaut profiles, you can visit the Aquarius Web site and the NASA Web site. More news about the NEEMO 9 mission can be found in the VMW April 2006 article Astronauts and Canadian surgeons to demonstrate remote medical care.

Leslie Versweyveld

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