Monday, March 28, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Pentagon is awarding $12 million in grants today 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,” he said.

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.

Some of the basic technology is in 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 for battle use.

But the Food and Drug Administration approved civilian medical use in 2000, and surgeons use the $1.3 million machines in about 300 hospitals worldwide to remove cancerous prostates, repair faulty heart valves and perform other procedures.

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