Pentagon seeks to create robotic battlefield surgeon
AFP – March 29, 2005
Before the Terminator, the US military is looking to hire the Operator, a top-notch battlefield surgeon. But those made of flesh and blood need not apply.
A contract awarded by the Pentagon to a consortium of universities and high-tech firms on Monday calls for creating a versatile robot able to perform life-saving surgery on wounded soldiers right on the battlefield.
"The result will be a major step forward in saving lives on the battlefield," said Scott Seaton, an executive director with SRI International, a company that will be the lead contractor on the 12-million-dollar, two-year project.
He said his Silicon Valley-based firm has a long history of meeting America's defense needs, "and this program continues in that tradition."
The request comes amid mounting military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops are trying to hunt down Islamic militants.
The two wars have already claimed the lives of 1,686 US servicemen and left a total 11,877 others wounded, according to the latest Defense Department figures.
The wounds of more than half of those hurt turn out to be serious enough that they require extended treatment.
If everything works according to plan, the "trauma pod," as the robotic surgical system is called, will be able to stabilize injured soldiers within minutes and administer medical and surgical care prior to or during evacuation.
The concept is a step up from the Da Vinci surgical system approved by the US government five years ago and already used in dozens of hospitals, officials said.
When using it, the surgeon is seated comfortably at a console away from the operating table.
Viewing a three-dimensional image of his target, the doctor relies on master controls to operate robotic arms that respond to every movement of his hands, wrists and fingers and wield surgical instruments inside the patient according to his wishes.
The Da Vinci system has proven to be successful for some of the most complicated types of surgery because it often allows doctors to minimize incisions, reducing post-operative trauma.
Scientists believe this surgery by remote control could now be transferred to the battlefield.
When fully developed, the "trauma pod" will dramatically reduce the need for human medical personnel on the battlefield, officials said.
It will be small enough to be carried by most army vehicles or a helicopter. A doctor will use a system of surgical manipulators to operate from a remote location via video link.
One of the major challenges, according to scientists, will be to make these video links stable and reliable enough and to teach the robot to change instruments without the help of a nurse.
The contractors on the project also include General Dynamics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Universities of Texas, Maryland and Washington.
Last updated 02/04/2005