Biomedicine – Part 8: Robots to the Rescue – Emergency Robots

In a controlled setting like a hospital doctors and other medical staff work with all the tools needed to save a patient. That is not necessarily the case in the field at a rescue site where victims found may require immediate intervention. Think about scenarios where surgical intervention is impossible because the victim is inaccessible, trapped under rubble, suffering from internal injuries, unconscious, or unresponsive. With no physical contact possible or with the space in which the victim lies so confined to permit much in the way of any physical interaction, rescue and emergency robots have a significant role to play.

If you think of the most recent disasters that made headlines in 2010 and 11 you can begin to envision how robots can play a part in prolonging life in emergencies. From the earthquakes in Haiti and South Island, New Zealand, to trapped miners in Chile, the tsunami in Japan, and most recently the  foundering of  the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, engineers get inspired to come up with new ways of supplementing human intervention and rescue efforts using robotic systems. In some of these recent tragedies robotic devices were deployed. But that is not the only use for robots in emergency medicine.

The Robot Will See You Now

Robots are used in emergency medicine in many ways. One is as patient screening tools, marrying robotics with computing science. Hospital emergency rooms represent bottlenecks with patients spending long hours waiting for a doctor or nurse. Shortening the wait times using a triage robot has inspired engineers at Vanderbilt University to develop TriageBot,

TriageBot monitors patients and notifies medical staff on site about an emergency. Source: ManAlive Magazine

A smart kiosk, TriageBot takes a medical history, measures vital signs and detects problems. The robot prioritizes patients based on severity of symptoms and history and can connect to on site staff even outside the emergency department should they be needed. The form of TriageBot is still under development. It could look like the fanciful and friendly robot displayed above or resemble an airport check-in terminal, or it could be built into a hospital waiting room chair. Designed to continuously monitor the patient before being seen by a member of the medical team, TriageBot represents an innovative use of robots in hospital settings.

But not all emergencies happen in the waiting room of hospitals. TriageBot systems when hooked up to a telecommunications network can provide both screening as well as monitoring of patients in remote areas. As the software evolves this type of emergency medical robot should prove invaluable.

The Japanese have a way with robotic systems and not to be outdone, Kyushu University has been experimenting with a robot prototype mobile monitoring system. (Click on the hyperlink in the last sentence to watch the movie. Although the narrative is in Japanese, you quickly get an understanding of how this apparatus works.)

Built for AICHI Expo 2005 this mobile chair features remote control driving done by emergency medical staff off site, vital signs monitoring, emergency first aid and even a defibrillator. The remote operator can talk and see the patient, communicate with bystanders and give them information on how they can help a person having a seizure, fainting or heart attack.

The Robot Will Find You Now

CRASAR is the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University. On its website it lists participation in using rescue robots going back to the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings in 2001. One area of development focuses on using robots as human proxies to provide communication with a trapped person that cannot be reached immediately after a disaster.

Survivor Buddy can work with medical staff to interact with a survivor during the period when help is not yet able to extricate the person. The robot includes a monitor that displays non-verbal human attributes by rotating and moving in a human-like way.

Sandia National Laboratories have been working on robots that can deliver food, water, oxygen and medical supplies to trapped miners underground while encountering environments that could prove lethal to human rescue workers. Designed to withstand flooded areas and explosions from pockets of methane gas the Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot comes equipped with a range of sensors as well as pan-and-tilt, and thermal cameras that elevate to see over obstacles. It travels on flexible treads that climb over obstacles. Using a game controller, Gemini-Scout is designed to work with first responders and can be outfitted for earthquakes, fire and other disaster scenarios.

Sandia National Laboratories are creators of the Gemini-Scout, a search and rescue robot. Source: photo by Randy Montoya

The Snakebot employs biomimicry to do search and rescue for trapped victims of disaster. An active scope camera that slithers, this robot was used to find trapped people under the wreckage of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.

But snakebots can even go beyond search and rescue. Carnegie Mellon University roboticist, Howie Choset, has designed a snakelike camera device that with 102 joints is capable of imaging and mapping internal organs such as the heart muscle. Although not a search and rescue application, these types of robot designs demonstrate flexibility with capability to serve multiple biomedical applications.

Nowhere have emergency medical robots been studied more than in the military where they are seen as extraction and evacuation tools that reduce collateral casualties. The United States military increasingly uses robots in all of its field operations including drone aircraft as surveillance and strategic strike weapons, as well as robotic land vehicles. With the goal of having 1/3 of its land vehicle fleet unmanned by 2015, robotic medical evacuation will become a common feature. The American army is testing both robotic evacuation and extraction vehicle technology to move patients from fire zones to hospitals. This includes using humanoid robot designs like the one pictured below.

The United States military is actively researching the development of medical evacuation robots. Source: Photo by Lori DeBernardis

Using robots capable of picking up an injured soldier on a battlefield represents a way of reducing deaths associated with casualty recovery operations.

The military is also testing unmanned aerial systems that can land and working with casualty extraction robots, remove wounded soldiers from environments where radiation or toxic gas would make it impossible for human intervention. Unmanned aircraft are also being tested to provide surveillance and medical response. To provide the human touch, robot extraction systems include telepresence so that a soldier remains connected to a medical support person even though they are not physically on site.

In our next blog we look at the emerging field of robot exoskeleton technology and its biomedical uses.


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...

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