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SRI to Develop Robotics for Battlefield Medical Care

By Roseanne Gerin
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page E04

Call it Robodoc.

SRI International Inc. won a two-year, $12 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a robotic surgical system that would let doctors operate on a wounded soldier on the battlefield from a remote location.

The automated medical treatment system, which would not require on-site medical personnel, could be on the battlefield in 10 to 15 years, said John Bashkin, a director of business development at SRI of Menlo Park, Calif.

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Members of SRI's team for the project include General Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church and the University of Maryland's medical system in Baltimore.

The robot would not perform surgery on its own, but it would carry out the commands of a surgeon controlling the process. The doctor, receiving a video feed from the robot, would use a system of surgical manipulators to perform the operation. As he moved his hands in the manipulators, his actions and voice commands would be communicated wirelessly to the automated system, which would replicate his actions.

The doctor, for example, could say that he needed a piece of gauze. One of the robot's arms would go to a parts dispenser to retrieve the gauze while the other arm would continue performing the surgery, Bashkin said.

The unmanned medical treatment systems, known as trauma pods, would be used to stabilize the conditions of injured soldiers within minutes after a casualty. It would administer life-saving medical and surgical care before evacuating troops and during their transport.

Telerobotic surgical systems have been around for a couple of decades, and DARPA and the Pentagon funded related projects at SRI in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bashkin said. The early systems were bulky, however, and had limited automation capabilities and could not be operated through a wireless connection.

"So now we're going to be pushing the telemedicine aspects more and developing a lot of automation around those types of surgical systems to do all the functions you find in an operating room like scrub nurse and anesthesiologist," Bashkin said.

SRI and a consortium of other organizations will build on the core of the da Vinci robotic surgical system, used in hospitals for minimally invasive surgery. Intuitive Surgical Inc., an SRI spin-off company, developed and commercialized the technology to allow doctors to perform robotically aided operations from a remote console. There are about 300 installations in hospitals around the world today, Bashkin said.

"Once we get through this demonstration phase, then we're really going to have to rethink everything from the beginning because we're going to have to be concerned with miniaturizing the entire system," he said.

For the trauma pod to be effective, researchers must address problems such as communication delays between the doctor and the trauma pod in the field. They also need to automate surgical processes such as administering anesthesia or inserting an IV. Another challenge is coordinating the robotic automation and the surgical system so that different parts of the pod do not run into each other or the patient, Bashkin said.

DARPA is the central research and development branch of the Defense Department. It is funding the trauma pod program through the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, a unit of the U.S. Army Research and Materiel Command.

SRI is a research and development institute that conducts contract research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, foundations and other organizations. The company employs about 2,000 people worldwide and had 2004 revenue of $257 million, SRI officials said.

Roseanne Gerin is a staff writer with Washington Technology. For more details on this and other technology contracts, go to www.washingtontechnology.com.


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