A drone that saves lives

By Peter Buxbaum
12:18 PM

Future U.S. warfighters will have a much better chance surviving a battlefield injuries than today's soldiers. And that may have a lot to do with experiments now being conducted by military researchers to build robots capable of extracting"and treating"battlefield casualties.

"Our motivation includes saving lives of both patients and first responders," said Gary Gilbert, a robotics researcher at the U.S. Army's Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) in Fort Detrick, Md. TATRC manages research projects funded by Congressional appropriations.

One embryonic android, the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR), is being developed by Vecna Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. (vecna.com), as a combination of brawn and brains.

The 6-foot, 6-inch BEAR can curl 500 pounds and is equipped with both legs and tracks to provide mobility in a variety of situations, according to Andrew Allen, a Vecna managing engineer.

But the most challenging aspect of the research is to build in sufficient intelligence to allow BEAR to act semi-autonomously. "You can't have a soldier distracted from his normal duties to drive a robot," said Gilbert, who oversees the BEAR project. "It has to be as autonomous as possible."

The idea is for an operator to send BEAR high-level commands, while allowing the robot to figure out how to execute the task. A series of sensors"optical, heat, radar, laser and tactile"and on-board data integration capabilities provides the machine a sense of situational awareness.

Allen anticipates research on BEAR will continue through 2015, at which point a prototype will be ready for military assessment. Bu perhaps the greatest challenge military medical robotics will face is a cultural one: Will medical managers and field commanders want to integrate 'bots into their operations?

Dr. Kevin Chung, a physician at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, took an off-the-shelf medical robot from InTouch Technologies Inc., and, with funding from TATRC, beefed up its data security to meet military standards.

The InTouch RP-7 robot allows doctors to make their rounds and check on hospitalized patients remotely, while the patient interacts with the doctor through a TV screen perched on the robot's shoulders.

Chung said the robot successfully completed a 15-month demonstration period and that many of his patients are delighted to be receiving his attention " robotically " when he is out of town. At the same time, Chung doubts the Army is ready to adopt medical robotics as a standard operating procedure.

"It's not supported by everyone," he said. "It is still new and controversial."

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