2011 Issues   /   July 2011

Robotics Explored for Treating Casualties in Difficult Battlefield Situations

USM By U.S. Medicine
July 12, 2011

WASHINGTON — Imagine that future soldiers could one day wear a nano patch as part of an advanced battlesuit that would relay their vital signals and administer medicine if they were injured in battle. Or, that remotely controlled unmanned vehicles could assist in medication delivery or evacuating casualties from the battlefield.

Field test in progress at Camp Roberts. Photo courtesy of CENTRIX.nps.edu.

It sounds like the stuff of an action fantasy movie, but researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) as part of NPS’ Tactical Network Testbed are working to bring this type of technology to assist medical personnel on the battlefield.

Alex Bordetsky, PhD, director of the NPS Center for Network Innovation and Experimentation (CENETIX) and associate professor of Information Systems, has led the series of field experiments at Camp Roberts in Monterey County, Calif., to explore how to assist casualties during hostile action when medics cannot get close enough or deliver immediate help. Field experiments are testing the use of networked-controlled, “unmanned systems” to assist medics in providing care to injured troops in battle.

“The big part of the overall remotely controlled network and unmanned system assisted scenario is providing the help from the remote site to the casualty on the ground by using means of network or robotic elements that are at the very end of that platform,” he said.


Battlefield Medicine

The technology could be effective not only in heavy combat but also when there are multiple casualties that require immediate attention.

“If there are several casualties spread over a large area, you can quickly run out of resources, or if you don’t want to risk your medical personnel getting immediately to the site,” Bordetsky explained.

Bordetsky and his team are experimenting with concepts of networked-controlled unmanned vehicles that either fly by air or on the ground and have cameras mounted on them so that they can  go to the casualty and provide video feed of the situation to medical personnel in a different and safer, location.

In scenarios the researchers are examining, the unmanned vehicles would be able to electronically read vital signs of the wounded servicemember, who would be wearing a nanotechnology device on their skin or on an advanced battlesuit. Such nano devices have already been developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are being used in the research.

“It is the first relay of that information that sends it hundreds and thousands of miles back to the medical command center and the hospital so that they can assess information,” explained Bordetsky. “Obviously, the pararescuers in the area are receiving that feedback as well.”

Medical personnel at the medical center can use vital-sign information to most appropriately direct medics on the ground, especially when there are multiple wounded on the battlefield.

“They evaluate which casualties are more severely wounded and need immediate administration or extraction or both, eventually, certainly, it is always extraction or at least administration of the drug,” he said.

The unmanned ground vehicles also have been used in trials to evacuate the casualties, and researchers are also exploring using the “robot” to assist in drug delivery to the injured servicemember on the battlefield.


Helping Patients Off the Battlefield

Bordetsky said that testing is critical to determine what will work in a real military scenario. He and his team have been running experiments at Camp Roberts, where they also have been collaborating with nearby Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital System (SVMHS).

SVMHS has provided a technologically advanced mannequin that works wirelessly to accurately simulate a patient’s vital signs. In recent exercises, SVMHS played the role of the medical center that receives vital signs from a casualty, then must monitor and evaluate that information to help the deployed medics in their decision-making.

For Jeffrey M. Adams, PhD, RN, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital and nursing research consultant at SVMHS, the work with Bordetsky is exciting because it also is likely to transform civilian medicine.

“Alex’s work is really about networking and the technical aspects of how information and decisions are transmitted,” he said. “The cool thing for us is that this is applicable in so many different ways.”

Off the battlefield, Adams pointed out that the technology might one day allow for remote monitoring of vital signs and delivery of medications for patients being treated by emergency first-response personnel before they even reach the hospital.

Furthermore, this type of technology could help in the monitoring and delivery of medications to patients suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, he said.

Rachel Failano, MSN, RN, clinical nurse educator and clinical simulation/skills lab coordinator at SVMHS, noted that the technology could lead to ways to improve remote monitoring, giving patients “the ability to have your health condition monitored from a setting of your choosing in your own independence.”

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