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Electronic Design

Keeping Troops Out Of Harm's Way, Technically Speaking

Emerging technologies aim to improve safety and emergency care on battlefields and beyond.

In one memorable scene in the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, the giant robot Gort picks up the body of his companion Klaatu and cradles the alien visitor in his arms. The robot then carries Klaatu back to the safety of their flying saucer for life-restoring treatment. Now, life is imitating art.

A giant mobile robot developed by Vecna Technologies is able to use its arms to rescue injured soldiers from the battlefield. "I am very excited about the potential of this robot to not only save lives by going out and rescuing people, but to save lives by doing jobs that are unnecessarily dangerous," says Daniel Theobald, president and chief technology officer of Vecna.

Most military-funded research focuses on developing or improving weapons systems. But as the nation continues fighting a dual-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense is increasingly turning its attention inward and actively supporting research designed to improve soldiers' well-being. "The military has shown that they're committed to soldiers' safety," says Theobald.

Vecna's robot mirrors much of Gort's functionality—except for the ability to fire disintegrator rays. Funded by the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, the Battlefield Extraction Robot (BEAR) walks on two legs, climbs stairs, and lifts objects equivalent to the size and weight of a fully outfitted soldier (Fig. 1).

Theobald notes that the remotely controlled BEAR is markedly different from other military robots, which are either vehicle-sized or small enough to be toys. "There wasn't anything in the middle," he says. "There was a real lack of robotic capability that addressed this critical area—a robot that can... actually interact with the environment, lift things, carry things, move things of significant weight."

A prototype BEAR incorporated a single hydraulic arm that could lift nearly 300 lb. Vecna recently demonstrated an improved model that cradled a human-sized dummy in two arms as it climbed up and down stairs. The most recent system's arms function like a forklift, sliding under objects and people before lifting them up. Theobald says future models will include articulated hands for gently scooping up casualties.

Standing 6 ft tall, BEAR features an array of high-tech hardware, including microprocessors, analog-to-digital converters, optical encoders, pressure sensors, and ultrasonic and infrared range finders. "In the current head we have two cameras—a night-vision camera and an active, infrared camera that can actually see heat," says Theobald.

For a big guy, BEAR is surprisingly mobile. Wheels on its feet, knees, and hips allow it to roll smoothly over level ground. Alternatively, thigh- and shin-mounted tracks enable it to move over rough terrain or stairs in a crouching or kneeling position.

The robot's most incongruous feature is its teddy-bear-like head, which is designed to comfort and reassure casualties (or perhaps help them laugh through their pain). "The troops will get used to it," says Theobald. "The troops will be dependent on \[the robot\] and will have a connection to it."

Besides rescuing fallen soldiers, BEAR could also be used for various dangerous military and civilian tasks that would expose humans to excessive risk, such as removing unexploded ammo, patrolling a nuclear facility, or retrieving important items from a burning building. "OSHA and mine safety people are very interested," says Theobald.

While Vecna's robot is designed to rescue wounded soldiers, other new technology may keep troops from getting injured in the first place. An associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Montana State University, Rob Maher is investigating how sound— specifically, the sound of gunshots—can save soldiers from sniper fire and other battlefield hazards. "Over the years there has been a lot of interest in trying to figure out where a bullet is going once it comes out of a rifle," he says.

Maher's goal is to pave the way for devices that would tell users, almost instantly, a gunshot's direction and distance. A soldier could then pinpoint a sniper's exact location after just a single shot was fired. Such a unit would feature two or more microphones to detect the gunshot from slightly different positions, as well as a small computer to make the necessary calculations.

"Sound travels at a relatively slow rate compared to the speed of electronics these days, so determining the relative time of the soundwaves' arrival at those different microphones is not particularly difficult any more," says Maher. "Using a computer to figure out the time differences and then predicting for a given trajectory how long that soundwave path would be, that's the procedure."

Boomerang, a gunfire detection system from BBN Technologies, already uses sound-analysis technology to calculate shot paths. The device indicates the range and elevation of incoming gunfire on an LED screen display. The system, which also announces the gunfire's direction with a recorded voice, features a set of microphones mounted to an aluminum stand. "It looks like a small, very sparse Christmas tree," says Maher. "It's under a meter tall."

Currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, Boomerang can be set up outside a building or tent or mounted to a HUMV (Fig. 2). Future detection systems will be even more accurate, able to work with a wider range of weapons, and small enough to be held in a soldier's hand.

Maher notes that gunfire analysis is merely the first step in creating even more sophisticated sound detection systems. "A gunshot's intense energy and distinctness make it an ideal signal for rapid analysis," he says. Other sounds aren't as easy to pick apart, however.

"The military would like to have some sort of deployable surveillance," says Maher, "where the systems would have enough intelligence to distinguish between the sound of a Jeep driving by, or a horse walking through tall grass, or somebody creeping up on hands and knees."

Maher believes such technology will someday allow soldiers, as well as civilian police officers and security guards, to respond quickly to a wide range of suspicious sounds. He notes that working on gunfire detection is good practice for developing other types of noise-recognition systems.

"My feeling is that if we can't develop our software and our algorithms to work reliably with these very distinctive \[gun-fire\] sounds, then we're likely not going to have much luck trying to distinguish very subtle changes," says Maher.

As wounded soldiers are brought to care stations and field hospitals, one of the crucial tasks facing medics, nurses, and physicians is accurately judging each patient's condition. All too often, injured soldiers are judged "stable" at field sites, and then they destabilize during flights to long-term health-care facilities located in Germany or the U.S.

"If we think somebody is stabilized, but they're not, they're going to go downhill fast," says Babs Soler, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass. "You can continually monitor people in hospitals, but it's really difficult if you put somebody on a helicopter or airplane."

To improve survival rates, Soler developed a portable gadget that can spot the signs of shock long before a soldier begins to develop symptoms of the life-threatening condition. "The military has been looking for a long time at trying to be able to non-invasively monitor soldiers who are at risk for having serious medical problems, like shock," she says. "You want to know as early as possible when somebody has internal bleeding."

Based on optoelectronic technology, Soler's device detects incipient shock by monitoring three key indicators: oxygen and acid levels in muscles as well as the volume of red cells in the patient's blood, all without the need for blood draws or incisions. It comprises a console and disposable sensor that provides rapid and continual monitoring via near-infrared reflected light.

"A spectrometer measures just how much light there is at each wavelength," Soler says. "The computer contains three mathematic equations that analyze the spectrum to report on the three parameters."

The monitor is designed to stay attached to patients until they reach a fully staffed and equipped hospital. "Hopefully, the numbers stay normal throughout the entire transport," says Soler. If not, an alarm sounds to alert a nearby caregiver that anti-shock treatment is required.

"They would look at the numbers as well as other information they might have to figure out how to treat the patient," says Soler.

Soler's research was funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense's Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program. Congress created the program in 1999 to promote military health research. Soler and her company, Reflectance Medical, are now seeking FDA approval for the device with the hope of marketing it to civilian EMT squads and trauma centers nationwide. "We hope this will be near every ICU bed," she says.

One has to wonder if Gort used such a device to monitor Klaatu's recovery.

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