The first 30 minutes after a battlefield injury are dire: that’s when nearly 86 percent of battlefield deaths occur. Before attending to the wounded, frontline physicians have to quickly locate the casualty and extract him from the battlefield, often under heavy fire. This can take up costly minutes, as well as expose medics themselves as possible targets.
Now researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are developing technology to give battlefield medics a helping hand–literally. Howie Choset, an associate professor of robotics at CMU, has engineered a snakelike robotic arm equipped with various sensors that can monitor a soldier’s condition. The robot can be wirelessly controlled via a joystick, so that a doctor at a remote clinic may move the robot to any point on a soldier’s body to assess his injuries as he’s being carried to a safe location. The robot’s serpentine flexibility allows it to maneuver within tight confines, so that, in case a casualty can’t be extracted from the battlefield immediately, the robot can perform an initial medical assessment in the field.
Choset and his colleagues have been building “snakebots” for over 10 years, improving range of motion and flexibility, as well as minimizing the overall size in multiple prototypes. In the past, the group has designed robots for urban search-and-rescue missions, and has worked with Ford Motor Company to build snake robots for precise auto-body painting. The team recently formed a startup company to commercialize one of its latest technologies, a robot that can potentially perform heart surgery.
Currently, the team is collaborating with the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) to integrate the robotic arm within the military’s high-tech stretcher, called the Life Support for Trauma and Transport system (LSTAT). This stretcher is essentially a portable intensive-care unit, with a ventilator, defibrillator, and other physiological monitors, and it’s currently being used in areas of Iraq and Afghanistan. Medics can quickly load a casualty onto the stretcher and attend to injuries with the equipment onboard.
“It has all these sensors onboard so we can perform preliminary diagnostics and maybe therapeutics to save the guy’s life,” says Choset. “The problem is, these sensors are attached to the LSTAT, and you would have to move them by hand, and if someone’s shot and you go over and help them, you’re an easy target. So we want to automate this whole system, and robotically move the sensors onto the patient while he’s being dragged off the battlefield.”