What led you to getting involved in a project like this? How did you go from working on rovers to developing a robotic surgery device?
You're making me show my cards here a little bit, I just was thinking, I was a co-op student in 1989 at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’ve really been doing NASA-related or NASA work in one way or another ever since. I was always a look at the stars kind of guy. I've always had space research in the back of my head, and I'm really excited to take this step and actually fly our robots [to the space station]. I'm very proud of the work we've done in robotic surgery. And it's going to be nice to combine those two things here.
How did all of this come together and what was your role?
I spent time studying at three NASA centers during my education and cut my teeth there. I've always been a robotics guy, specifically working on Mars rovers. But for about the last 20 years, me and the [company’s] co-founder, Dr. Demetri Linda, who is a surgeon, have been working on these small robots that go inside the body for surgery.
There are a lot of good robots out there for surgery. If I was going to have surgery, I'd want to use these devices but they're often very big and cumbersome and can be very expensive. So, we always thought you could make small robots that could do the same kind of tests. This caught the attention of both NASA and the U.S. Army because both those institutions want to do surgery in faraway crazy places. We made these small robots and eventually Virtual Incision spun out [to a private company from the labs at the University of Nebraska]. We are also trying to commercialize these robots for terrestrial use here on Earth.
What tasks will the robot complete in space?
Of course, we won’t have a patient on the space station, so we'll do some simulated tasks. We're going to extract some very specific sort of [surgical] sub-tasks [related to colon surgery], and then try to reproduce those on the space station. One is stretch and dissect. So, you want to grab the tissue, you want to stretch it to put some tension on it, and then dissect away part of that tissue. Then there are some other tests that that require very fine motion we’ll be doing [in a zero-gravity environment].
You mentioned NASA and the U.S. Army are interested in experimenting with how these robots can be used in space and in remote, battlefield locations. What impact does that have on providers and patients? How far away is this technology from being used in hospitals?
We plan on finishing our clinical trial this year and we'll submit an application for [FDA] approval soon after. It’s difficult to predict what other modalities might become important and become priorities in terms of telesurgery or teleoperation, or even just telementoring. So, I can’t speculate on a timeframe [of clinical adoption], but our goal is to get it into hospitals and start treating patients and really help patients.
Many of the [current surgical] robots are eight or nine feet tall and weigh 2,000 pounds. They take over a room. Once they're set up in a room, they never get moved. But we want a robot that you can take to space. If you can take it to space, there's no reason you can't use it across the hospital in many, many different rooms. If you can have robots that are so easy to move around that you can take them to the International Space Station, we should be able to take them a lot of places here on Earth, whether or not you're teleoperating or not.
What types of settings do you see these robots making the biggest impact?
We think a smaller, simpler device can be used in a lot of different places. So, our first target are the other operating rooms. A hospital might have 40 or 50 operating rooms, and three or four of these expensive robots, but that leaves a lot of operating rooms that don't have this technology. There are different types of hospitals in rural settings, critical access hospitals, that we can enable minimally invasive surgery in these locations, even ambulatory care centers, potentially. So that's kind of our first step.