CINCINNATI—Local junior high students got a hands-on demonstration of just how cool science can be during a robotics competition hosted at the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Surgical Innovation. The competition is being conducted in conjunction with the 12th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation (NEEMO) to get kids excited about careers in science and medicine.
UC surgeon Timothy Broderick, MD, is part of the undersea mission aimed at improving medical care for future space travelers. A gastrointestinal surgeon, Broderick, became an “aquanaut” as part of the NEEMO 9 mission in 2006.
The NEEMO 12 crew “splashed down” Monday, May 7 for 12 days submerged aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquarius Underwater Laboratory off the Florida coast.
The crew’s goal is to further refine surgical technologies to be used in long space voyages. The aquanauts will test two remotely controlled surgical robots in a variety of advanced medical experiments, including robotic telesurgery on simulated patients.
For the robotics competition, teams of five students from local schools—Schroder Junior High School, the Indiana School for the Deaf, Taft Elementary and Clark Montessori—rotated through four robotic surgery stations designed to test their hand-eye coordination and finesse at manipulating laparoscopic tools.
Students attempted to move rings from one peg to another—first using just laparoscopic graspers, then using the graspers with one eye closed, followed by manipulating hand-controlled robotic arms and finally using the da Vinci robotic surgical system commonly used for clinical care.
Winners of the competition will get to “drive” a surgical robot—called the RAVEN—that NEEMO 12 scientists are testing in the Aquarius habitat—at a community educational program from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., May 9, at Cincinnati Museum Center.
The same day, during an educational outreach session at 10 a.m., a group of at least 200 local schoolchildren will also talk directly to Broderick and the NASA team about how doctors will eventually treat sick or injured astronauts when they are millions of miles away from the hospital. The children will hear what it’s like to live and work undersea and have an opportunity to ask questions during a virtual tour of the scientists’ tiny living space.
Broderick is principal scientist for NEEMO 12, which includes research projects from UC, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, NASA Johnson Space Center’s Space and Life Sciences Directorate, SRI International and the University of Washington.
One UC experiment will test semi-autonomous robots. Unlike today’s robotic surgery—in which a surgeon controls every move a robot makes—robotic surgery of the future may use robots that are programmed to perform surgeries on their own.
Broderick and his team will not be to that point during the NEEMO 12 mission—but they will test a surgical robot’s ability to perform specific important tasks.
“One test might involve equipping the surgical arm with a needle and telling it to drain an abscess,” explains Broderick. “But the surgeon will only supervise, not control, the robotic arm.”
He says technology applications developed and refined during the NEEMO 12 mission will help surgeons overcome interplanetary communication lag time and could improve the care of astronauts on future missions to the moon and Mars.
“We need to figure out better ways to care for astronauts before we make the long trip to Mars,” Broderick says. “Telemedicine and robotic surgery could be key in maintaining the health of future spacefarers and responding to medical emergencies in space.”
In addition to the telesurgery demonstrations, the crew will conduct simulated undersea "moon walks" to test concepts for future lunar exploration. During these simulated moon walks, they will construct an undersea structure with the help of a remotely operated vehicle, similar to what the next travelers to the moon may do. The crew also will practice collecting geological samples to help develop tools and techniques for collecting lunar samples and training future lunar explorers to be geologists.
More information on the NEEMO initiative is available at www.nasa.gov/neemo.