We typically think of telemedicine reaching across a city, state or even country. What about reaching into the furthest reaches of space? NASA’s Robonaut 2 is the first human-like robot in space and, like other NASA innovations, has the potential to impact life here on Earth.
Astronauts go through rigorous testing to ensure that they are in top physical and mental shape. However, no one is immune to health problems. And now that NASA is currently considering longer duration flights with trips to near earth asteroids, the Moon, and even Mars, the likelihood of encountering a health issue in space is even greater.
Robonaut 2 is NASA’s second-generation dexterous humanoid assistant in space designed for many assistive and autonomous roles. The first-generation Robonaut never left Earth, but the second-generation Robonaut 2 is currently in space. Arriving on the International Space Station in 2011 with STS-133, the robot has undergone many updates and finally received human-like legs in 2014. His arms and hands have similar ranges of motion to human limbs and can even interact with tools and equipment much like humans.
One role NASA has been considering with Robonaut 2 is to perform basic medical functions including assessing an astronaut’s health, performing injections, using ultrasound, and delivering basic emergency medical care. The impressive design of Robonaut 2 allows for the these functions to be programmed for autonomous functioning or be remotely controlled by an individual on Earth.
In a similar form of virtual presence, a medical specialist in space could potentially be assisted remotely by an orthopaedic specialist, critical care physician, or any other medical professional to help address an astronaut health issue in space. The Earth-based physician wears a headset and tracking gloves that control Robonaut’s movements. This telepresence system even allows for the Earth-based physician’s voice to be transmitted through Robonaut 2 to help guide and explain the healthcare situation.
We previously reported on advances in telemedicine technology, including using robots to remotely perform ultrasounds. There are however challenges to using this type of technology, particularly in resource limited settings. Many of the technical challenges being overcome by NASA to build an autonomous and versatile robot could ultimately assist in surgical procedures in remote areas, deliver medical care in infectious outbreaks, and even provide first-aid in hazardous environmental conditions. Even the challenge of time delays in communications with distant astronauts could lead to systems that could deal with care delivery in areas of poor connectivity.
Given NASA’s track record in translating their innovations into technology we use on a day to day basis, it’s not hard to imagine that many of these challenges could be solved in the quest to develop a robot to support medical care in space.