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ISS technology inspires surgical robotic arm for helping sick children

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The International Space Station is creating technologies that could be used here on Earth. Now, the company that created the robotic arms that built the station is developing a new kind of robotic arm: one that can perform surgery on children who need it.

The robotic arm, KidsArm, will assist surgeons in finding specific surgical sites in the delicate bodies of children, giving doctors a surgical technique that has more precision and accuracy than ever before.

The arm is the result of a partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, LTD. (MDA). MDA is the company responsible for the robotics on the ISS, including the arms that built the space station. Those same arms are still being used on the ISS for maintenance and spacecraft docking.

Now MDA is adapting their technology for use in children's surgeries, which require a lighter and more delicate touch. The tiny robotic arm has cameras that precisely track tissue and help surgeons choose the right places to suture. Surgeons use controllers while watching the surgery via real-time imaging.

"Advanced technologies such as imaged-based tissue-tracking and robotic platforms help us select suture points and [follow] these points so that we can compensate for the tissue motion that sometimes makes these surgeries difficult," says Thomas Looi, director for one of the partners that worked with SickKids on the project.

This imaging guides the point of the suture tool, making it autonomous. This part of the technology is the same as that used to track the ISS' robotic systems.

"Our tests indicate we can operate on tiny structures such as blood vessels without damaging them," says Looi. "The goal of  robotic arm is to help doctors perform certain procedures many times faster than if they were only using their hands and with increased accuracy."

Although KidsArm isn't quite at the point where it's ready to operate on children in tests, it performed three to five suture points by itself. Researchers hope that the technology will help surgeons do their work on a smaller scale than currently possible.

In addition to KidsArm, the ISS consistently inspires science and technology on Earth. The station is also responsible for other advancements in health care, including a potential new asthma medication, new vaccines, a better understanding of osteoporosis and new cancer treatments. The ISS has also made strides in helping scientist better understand weather on Earth, as well as climate change.

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