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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March, 2005, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
US seeks battlefield robot medic
Computer illustration provided by SRI International showing a "trauma pod".
The "robot surgeon" would operate on soldiers and evacuate them
The Pentagon has awarded $12m (6.4m) to researchers to build a robot to perform surgery in the battlefield.

"The result will be a major step forward in saving lives," said Scott Seaton, who works for the lead US contractor, SRI International.

The "trauma pod" will be based on the concept of the existing Da Vinci surgical system in use since 2000.

There is growing concern in the US about rising troop casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SRI has prepared a video for the Pentagon showing how a robot might operate on a wounded soldier in the middle of enemy fire and then evacuate them.

Two major challenges

Their main challenge would be to improve the Da Vinci system, which has been used in civilian hospitals successfully to perform operations such as removing cancerous prostates and repair heart valves.

This has three robotic arms, which are operated remotely by the surgeon using joysticks.

The arms are passed into the body through an opening only half an inch across.

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
John Bashkin
SRI International

The surgeon gets a three-dimensional image of what is happening because one of the arms carries two tiny cameras.

But two major improvements are needed on this system to make it operational on the battlefield:

  • The Da Vinci system uses nurses to change the surgeon's instruments in the robot's arms - a process that has to be made automatic in the battlefield; and

  • the connections between the operating console and the robot "surgeon" has to be wireless and shielded from enemy interception.

"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 of SRI.

"Right now, the resources are pretty limited to what a medic can carry with him."

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