How International Space Station Tech is Influencing Earth-Based Medical Procedures

A crucial piece of space technology is now being adapted for medical use back on Earth, with huge success. The Canadarm2, the robotic arm on the International Space Station (ISS), was launched in 2001 to be used to aid in the station’s construction as well, as to capture and bring in cargo ships, like Orbital ATK’s Cygnus or the Dragon from Space X.

When the International Space Station was designed, engineers focused on making it easy to put together. This involved building it in large pieces, so they could be fit together. The Canadarm2’s role was to move those large pieces to where they needed to go, as well as precisely fitting them together. Precision is crucial, as a misplaced part or pieces that are not put together properly could result in huge safety risks for the crew.

The Canadarm2 was designed by the Canadian Space Agency in partnership with NASA. This robotic arm followed the first Canadarm, which was signed over to NASA in 1981 and was developed by Spar Aerospace Ltd. The first Canadarm was retired in July of 2011 and was subsequently replaced with the more advanced Canadarm2. The first Canadarm is now in a museum in Canada’s capital, commemorating the nation’s most famous piece of space technology.

Inspired by the arm’s high precision in space, a Canadian company expressed interest in adapting the technology as a neurosurgical tool. The goal is to come up with a way to make neurosurgery safer and efficient. Synaptive Medical teamed up with the developers of the Canadarm and released a prototype version of this tool in 2015. Dubbed the Drive, it tracked all surgical equipment and images, helping lead to quicker, faster procedures.

The technology used to create the Drive was upgraded in 2017, resulting in the creation of the Modus V. 30. Hospitals across North America now use this technology in their neurosurgery departments. Synaptive Medical’s director of engineering told the media that they were keen on working with the developers of the arm. Since they were able to successfully create this technology for use in space, Synaptive representatives believed they could use the same theory to develop a tool perfect for use in an operating room.

One surgeon at the Houston Methodist Hospital told reporters that the arm’s ability to follow and track surgeons dramatically speeds up efficiency. This leads to shorter surgery times with fewer risks of complications for the patient.

The Modus V has inspired numerous pieces of similar technology, all of which incorporate technology specifically created for the Canadarm. Notable examples include the Image-Guided Autonomous Robot, created to make breast cancer surgeries more precise, and the neuroArm, which was developed to perform surgery while the patient is inside a magnetic resonance machine.