Military robo-surgeon prepares for battle


By Tom Simonite (Image: Blake Hannaford/UW) (Image: Blake Hannaford/UW) Life-saving operations on soldiers in combat zones could become possible thanks to a portable robotic surgeon that allows doctors to perform surgery on the battlefield without endangering themselves. Surgical robots that can be operated remotely are already used in some civilian hospitals. These include a system called “da Vinci” made by US company Intuitive Surgical, and another system called ZEUS, made by US firm Computer Motion. However, these existing systems are large and cumbersome, taking up much of an operating room. Now Blake Hannaford and colleagues at the University of Washington, in Seattle, US, have come up with a system small enough to travel with troops into combat zones in the back of an armoured vehicle. The surgical machine was developed with funding from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Hannaford says that many groups require robots that can be carried much closer to combat: “An expert surgeon can remotely work on the patient very quickly after an injury is sustained.” The robot consists of two arms that reach over a patient from either side. They are attached to a motorised carriage that can travel up and down the operating table. “It’s very positionable to any part of the body,” says Hannaford, adding that this may allow the robot be used on arms and legs. In June 2006 Hannaford performed the first tests of the robot in the field. It was taken in a truck to Simi Valley in the Californian desert and operated by a surgeon in Seattle. To simulate battle conditions the signal was relayed by an unmanned aerial vehicle. Being able to use a robot this way could address one of the biggest problems facing the military, says surgeon Donald Reed at Michigan State University, US, who has worked in Iraq and helped develop tele-operated robots. “The limiting factor right now for treating injured soldiers is the availability of skilled surgeons to attend these casualties.” But remotely operating such a machine in military environment could be a challenge, Reed adds. “Loud sounds, such as helicopter engines or artillery fire, might interfere significantly with communications with those at the scene,” he says. “Extra challenges include a dirty environment, electrical supply and lighting.” In the long run, Reed believes tele-operated surgical equipment may become important for civilian hospitals in remote locations. “Hospitals could purchase the equipment and maintain them in good repair for the occasional case where a consultant must be called upon for special reasons,
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