An enemy rocket-propelled grenade leaves a soldier critically wounded in a combat zone. Fierce fighting makes it impossible to safely evacuate him without risking the lives of others. Fortunately, an unmanned casualty retrieval bot system is traveling with the squad and is headed his way within seconds of the explosion. The soldier is quickly pulled onto the machine by robotic arms and whisked away to a modified Bradley armored troop carrier waiting nearby. There are no humans inside the trauma unit, but life-sustaining treatment begins immediately.

The soldier’s body is scanned from head to toe, and the results are compared to a healthy scan embedded in the soldier’s dog tags, allowing the automated unit to identify injuries to a precision of one cubic millimeter. The soldier is given antibiotics and anesthesia while the machine’s tentacles begin surgery — communicating the entire time with a human surgeon who is watching the entire procedure via real-time video from a remote location. The surgeon directs the medical procedures while the mobile trauma unit does its work. Once stabilized, the soldier will be elevated through the top hatch of the vehicle where he will be transferred to a remotely piloted air ambulance and taken to a hospital and, for the first time since his injury, be treated by human medical personnel.

The “Trauma Pod,” as it is called, is being developed by a multi-organization team under the direction of SRI International. With an eye on emerging and anticipated technology, the plan is to help the military reduce its non-combat support personnel, which includes the medical corps, by 30 percent over the next two decades. The trauma pod technology shows such promise that the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency awarded $12 million in grants for the development of these unmanned robotic medical units.

SRI International established itself as a clear leader in the field of remote-controlled robotic surgery after making headlines in 2000 for the development of a successful prototype of its Telepresence Surgery System, which allow surgeons to perform surgery via remote control. Such technology could save countless lives on the battlefield, but the civilian applications of that same technology will allow surgeons to perform more precise, less invasive surgical procedures and could even allow surgeons to perform surgery from a hospital while the patient is en route via ambulance.

“By combining recent advances in stereo imaging, telerobotics, sensory devices, video and telecommunications, the telepresence system provides surgeons with the full sensory experience of conventional hands-on surgery,” according to SRI International. “Auditory, visual and tactile sensations, including the force or pressure felt while making an incision, are communicated directly to the surgeon performing the operation without distortion or delay.”

In essence, the surgeon receives the full experience of standing in the operating room, scalpel in hand, but from a distant — and safe — location.

The team developing the trauma pod technology includes researchers from General Dynamics Robotics Systems (a leader in unmanned vehicle systems), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Robotic Surgical Tech, Inc. (the first to develop robotic nurse systems for operating systems), the University of Texas, the University of Washington and the University of Maryland.

“SRI is excited about working with the team to innovate and apply its interdisciplinary technical skills, rigorous approach to systems integration and comprehensive testing and demonstration abilities to tackle the challenge of developing a functional system,” said Scott Seaton, executive director of SRI’s engineering and systems division.

“The result will be a major step forward in saving lives on the battlefield,” he said. “SRI has a long history of meeting our nation’s defense needs, and this program continues in that tradition.”