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Machine Design

Trauma pods to the rescue

Army medics can only carry so much medical equipment and supplies onto the battlefield, hardly enough to care for severely wounded soldiers.

Trauma Pods would autonomously pick up wounded soldiers (top) and assess their injuries using X-rays and other modern diagnostic techniques (middle). If needed, a human doctor far from the fighting would direct the Pod's surgical robot in any medical procedures (bottom). The Pod would return itself and its patient to a pickup zone and rendezvous with a ground or air vehicle for transport to a safer area.

To improve the odds that wounded GIs make it home alive, the Pentagon has awarded a $12 million grant to SRI International, a nonprofit research institution in Menlo Park, Calif., to develop a robotic surgical suite that can be transported to the battlefront.

Dubbed Trauma Pods, the mobile, autonomous devices will pick up wounded soldiers, stabilize and assess their injuries, and be equipped with a suite of robotic surgical instruments. A doctor far from the fighting will direct the robot in any necessary surgical procedures. The pods will be sized to fit in military ground and air vehicles for transport to and from the front.

Several daunting engineering challenges stand between the Trauma Pods and the battlefield. The wireless connection between doctor and pod must be real time. There can be no delays between the doctor's commands and the surgical robot's actions. The wireless two-way communication also must be invisible to the enemy. And the system must be small and durable enough to withstand combat. SRI researchers are optimistic but warn that Trauma Pods are at least 10 years away from reality.

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