Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Emergency Surgeon "trauma pod" Robot

By Margaret Steen
Mercury News

Imagine having surgery inside a small moving vehicle, with robotic arms cutting you open and sewing you up -- and no people in sight.

As the military looks for ways to cut labor costs and put fewer lives at risk, it is envisioning a mobile ``trauma pod'' in which injured soldiers are operated on by robotic arms under the control of surgeons who are far from the battlefield.

Enter SRI International, a non-profit research institution in Menlo Park. SRI leads a group that has won a $12 million contract to begin research on the trauma pod. The contract for a two-year preliminary project is from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department's research and development group. Experts estimate that a working trauma pod is at least 10 or 15 years away.

`Think of a super-sized ambulance'' with robotic arms instead of emergency medical personnel, said John Bashkin, director of business development for SRI.

The team doesn't have to start from scratch. It's using a commercially available computer-aided surgical system from Sunnyvale-based Intuitive Surgical, a company that was founded with SRI technology. The goal for the first phase, Bashkin said, is to automate everything else about the surgery: handing the proper tools to the surgeon's robotic arm, for example, or disposing of used gauze.

If the SRI-led demonstration of the trauma pod is successful, Bashkin said, the group will discuss with DARPA funding for the next phase of the project, which could include trying to scale down the system to make it more portable.

Bigger challenges would be addressed in later phases of the work: getting a robot to insert an intravenous tube or administer anesthesia.

The research on these and other issues could have an impact on medicine even before a working trauma pod enters battle, Bashkin said. For example, in trying to automate the anesthesia process, researchers could learn more about how to make current anesthesia practices safer. | 04/09/2005 | I, ROBOT -- AND SURGEON


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