March 28, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO - The Pentagon is awarding $12 million in grants on Monday to develop an unmanned "trauma pod" designed to use robots to perform full scalpel-and-stitch surgeries on wounded soldiers in battlefield conditions.
The researchers who pitched the Defense Department on the idea have prepared a futuristic "concept video" that seems straight out of a teen fantasy game, showing with full color and sound effects the notion that robots in unmanned vehicles can operate on soldiers under enemy fire and then evacuate them.
"The main challenge is how can we get high-quality medical care onto the battlefield as close to the action and as close to the soldiers as possible," said John Bashkin, head of business development at SRI International, a nonprofit laboratory that often handles Defense Department research. "Right now, the resources are pretty limited to what a medic can carry with him."
SRI researchers caution that the project remains at least a decade away from appearing on any battlefields. Surgeons will need to manipulate the robot in real time, using technology that prevents any delays between their commands and the robot's actions. The "trauma pod" has to keep connected wirelessly without giving away its position to the enemy, and it has to be nimble and hardy enough to perform under fire.
Still, some of the initial technology is already being put to use in hospitals, and the goal of the initial $12 million project is relatively modest - researchers hope to show that a surgeon, operating the robot remotely, can stitch together two blood vessels of a pig.
The consortium led by SRI also includes General Dynamics Robotic Systems, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of Texas, University of Washington, University of Maryland and Robotic Surgical Tech, Inc.
SRI spearheaded the Pentagon's first such endeavor to develop a "telesurgery" system in the 1980s. The resulting robot, dubbed the da Vinci Surgical System, proved to be too bulky and too dependent on too many humans to be used in battle.
But the Food and Drug Administration approved the da Vinci in 2000 for civilian medical use and surgeons now use the $1.3 million machines in about 300 hospitals worldwide to remove cancerous prostates, repair faulty heart valves and other procedures.
While sitting at a da Vinci console, usually just a few feet from their patients, surgeons look into a binocular-like monitor to view three-dimensional images transmitted from inside the patient by a camera at the end of one of the robot's arms. The doctors slip their hands into stirrups to guide the robotic arms armed with the camera and precision surgical tools.
To get something like this into battle, researchers will spend the next two years modifying the da Vinci so only a single surgeon is needed to operate the robot.
Even with this modest initial goal, the obstacles are daunting.
Right now, nurses are needed to change equipment on the ends of da Vinci's arms from, say, a scalpel to sutures during operations. That needs to be automated in the battlefield. And that's just one of many extremely complex tasks the trauma pod will need to be able to perform.
One key problem that won't be overcome in the next two years: removing the hardwired connections between da Vinci's console and its robot. That would simply require too much bandwidth, Bashkin said.
The $12 million project is being funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA. It is the only such medical project of its kind the agency is funding, spokeswoman Jan Walker said.
Still, the "telesurgery" concept fits like a surgeon's glove with the government's goal of automating as much as the battlefield as possible. NASA is also interested in the project.
The Pentagon, which spent $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles between 1991 and 1999, is expected to spend upward of $10 billion through 2010. Under a congressional mandate, the Defense Department is pushing for one-third of its ground vehicles to be unmanned by 2015.