Tele-robots probe latency from afar

In a supreme test of signal latency, a Hamilton, Ont.-based physician recently performed remote tele-robotic assisted surgery on a patient simulator located in Aquarius Habitat off the shores of Key Largo, Fla. The operation relied on bleeding-edge network technology that everyone involved with hopes will lead to widespread applications back on dry land.

The initial project began about three years ago as an international partnership between the Canadian Space Agency, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and networking firms including Bell Canada and Cisco Systems. The goal was to develop an effective system which would enable doctors to remotely operate on patients in an extreme environment, says Dr. Mehran Anvari of McMaster’s Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS) in Hamilton.

The NEEMO 9 mission (NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations) uses end-to-end network technology to test the efficacy of remote surgery, says Anvari, where doctor and patient are located in different countries. Such technology could reduce the risk of deep-space travel, where astronauts may need access to medical care. The project builds on the previous success of the NEEMO 7 mission conducted in October 2004. During the surgery, scientists involved also tested the effect of signal latency — up to three seconds — and whether this hinders the ability to perform tele–robotic surgery in remote settings on earth and for future space missions. Miniature robotic surgical cameras in the patient simulator were used to enhance the surgeon’s field of view.

The actual surgery was completed last month, says Anvari, and focused on demonstration and evaluation of innovative remote surgical technologies and techniques in an underwater environment, where extreme conditions are similar to those found in space. Using a surgical robot, Anvari was able to perform remote suturing on a patient simulator located 19 metres underwater in the Aquarius Habitat, operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“NEEMO 9 is a space

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