Robots could replace army medics in battle

Robots could become the new Hawkeye and Hot Lips from the hit 1970s TV series 'M*A*S*H', which followed the fortunes of a team of army medics, it was revealed today.

In ten years' time, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital may be replaced by a 'Trauma Pod' manned by robot surgeons and nurses.

A prototype already undergoing trials contains a three-armed remotely-controlled robotic surgeon - the equivalent of Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce, played by Alan Alder in the M*A*S*H series.

The surgical robot is assisted by 12 other robotic systems, including a voice-activated 'Hot Lips', the nickname given to chief nurse Major Margaret Houlihan in 'M*A*S*H'.

Its single arm passes instruments to the robot surgeon and disposes of used equipment.

A third 'circulating nurse' robot has the job of dispensing the right tools, while the Pod's bed monitors vital signs and administers fluids and oxygen.

The purpose of the Trauma Pod is to provide a swift 'temporary fix' to soldiers wounded in battle before they can be be transferred to hospital.

Ultimately, it should be able to perform life-saving procedures on fallen soldiers.

Pablo Garcia, from project leaders SRI International, based in Menlo Park, California, US, told New Scientist magazine: "The system will focus on damage control surgery, the minimum necessary to stabilise someone. It could provide airway control, relieve immediate life-threatening injuries such as a collapsed lung, or stop bleeding temporarily."

The surgeon robot, controlled by a human from a distance, will communicate with and instruct the other robots.

One of its three arms holds an endoscope to allow the human controller to see inside the patient, while the other two grip surgical tools.

The robot could be allowed to carry out some simple tasks without human help, such as placing stitches or tying knots, said Garcia.

The Trauma Pod is being developed with $12m (£8.5m) funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

It has just completed the first phase of a feasibility trial in which the robots treated a mannequin with bullet injuries - inserting a plastic rube into a damaged blood vessel and operating to close a perforated bowel.

The team hopes to shrink the Trauma Pod and all its robots to a collapsible unit encased in a shell that can be carried on the back of a vehicle.

Eventually the bed will act as an anaesthetist, using a robotic arm to insert intravenous lines and deliver drugs.

Brendan Visser, a surgeon at Stanford University in California who helped develop the Trauma Pod, said: "Three separate robots dance over the top of the patient with their powerful arms moving very quickly, yet they don't crash and they're able to deliver very small items from one arm to another.

"It's like those drunk-driving tests where they make you close your eyes and touch your nose, but at very high speed with arms that would break your nose if they smashed into it."

[Image: 20th Television Fox/CBS]

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