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October 2007 Issue

Timothy Broderick, MD, (right) floats above a patient mannequin while riding in NASA’s “Vomit Comet.”
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'Wild Ride' Helps UC Surgeon Test New Surgical Robot

By Amanda Harper
Published October 2007

In his quest to provide expert care to patients in remote places, UC surgeon Timothy Broderick, MD, spent four days in an airplane doing a kind of “weightless ballet” to test surgical robotic technologies that may eventually be used to treat injured soldiers during transport, or even sick astronauts in space.  

This wasn’t the first time Broderick has flown on what has been dubbed the “vomit comet,”
a DC-9 plane that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses to simulate a microgravity environment similar to space.

Parabolic flight—which involves climbing and diving flight patterns similar to a math bell curve—simulates microgravity by “free-falling” within Earth’s normal gravitational field. As the plane falls toward Earth, the passengers and equipment float inside it in simulated “zero G.”

The topsy-turvy patterns flown by the DC-9 during this research experiment provide brief periods of simulated weightlessness that is similar to what astronauts experience during space flight.  

For this five-day research experiment, Broderick’s team at UC’s Advanced Center for Telemedicine and Surgical Innovation (ACTSI) partnered with NASA, the U.S. military and SRI International to further develop and test a smaller, lighter surgical robot known as the M7.

ACTSI is a research collaboration between UC’s surgery department, the U.S. Army and other federal agencies aimed at developing and testing telemedicine and other innovative surgical technologies to improve care for injured soldiers—and someday, civilians.

In April 2006 and 2007, Broderick traveled undersea during NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 9 and 12 to test space medicine concepts in an effort to better understand—and overcome—the challenges of performing surgery in space and other extreme environments.

A major challenge encountered in telesurgery is communication delays between the operating surgeon in one location and the simulated patient in another.

“We found that a surgeon on Earth could operate on an injured astronaut on the moon. However, to be truly useful, the robot on the moon will have to help the surgeon with some aspects of the operation—much like an autopilot helps a pilot fly an airplane,” explains Broderick, associate professor of surgery and biomedical engineering and director of ACTSI.

“NEEMO 9 made it apparent that we needed a surgical ‘robot’ with some autonomy—so we added that component during NEEMO 12,” he adds. “But we still need a robot that can be used in flight, whether it’s in space or critical care air transport.”

For this project, Broderick’s team upgraded the robot so it was smaller, lighter and more modern—in particular, the console where the surgeon sits is much more portable and includes the latest high-definition monitors and haptic controllers.

“Even more exciting is that we modified the robot to compensate for changes in acceleration that medical providers often experience when caring for patients outside a hospital,” he says.

Preflight testing involved setting up the robot in the back of a van while the driver challenged the surgeon with sharp turns, sudden stops, speed bumps and potholes.

“Imagine you’re a passenger in a car trying to drink coffee. The car runs over a pothole and you spill coffee all over yourself,” explains Broderick.

“Now imagine if that object you’re holding is a scalpel and you’re operating on a patient. The robot helps remove these ‘bumps’ and lets you operate better.”

The research, which took place in Houston Sept. 24–28, included about eight people per trip—flight surgeons, astronauts and UC researchers.

During each flight, Broderick and the rest of the team cut and sutured simulated tissue using the robot. Each flight lasted about two hours and included about 25 seconds of simulated weightlessness.

“The key is to create useful technology that’s robust enough that it will not break down during extreme changes in G-forces, but small and light enough to be practical in small places like the back of an ambulance, a military transport plane or a spaceship destined for Mars,” says Broderick.

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