In battlefield situations, taking even basic medical measurements may be complicated. Proper instruments, the knowledge of how to use them and good decision-making skills are required. It would be great if soldiers had sophisticated, miniaturized medical devices that could easily be used to help an injured person.
If that were the case, said retired Army surgeon Ron Poropatich, "you can then assess the individual's heart rate, blood pressure, and have a soft robotics collar with imaging devices in the neck that would tell me where the trachea is located, and have soft robotics with embedded sensors that tell me whether the lung is collapsed or not," plus other vital information.
Poropatic is leading a team of researchers and engineers working on an "intelligent rucksack," equipped with a computer, a range of sensors and robotic instruments, even syringes preloaded with a variety of medicines.
One advantage computers offer is that they can quickly process a huge amount of data. With software that compares readings taken from an injured patient with those from thousands of similar cases loaded into memory, a computer could identify the optimal lifesaving procedure in seconds.
Poropatich said scientists involved with the project started by trying to see how small they could go.
“Can we put it on an iPhone and can we have wires from the iPhone go onto the casualty?" he asked. "And then, can we take a soft robotics collar or something to stabilize your cervical spine, and put that same soft robotics over your thorax and have embedded sensors that have imaging capability? And have embedded in the robotic pillows, if you will, needles, that could be inserted, in the event the patient decompensates during the evacuation?”
Prolonged field care
In some settings, bringing in an evacuation vehicle might not be possible, Poropatich said. So his team is working on something called prolonged field care.
"We would do a precision airdrop and drop in a backpack full of this miniaturized equipment easily inserted on the casualty," he said. The gear could transmit a signal to an unmanned vehicle, which in turn would send it to medical officer for consultation. "That is all science fiction right now, but it's at the point of very serious discussions with serious interest from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.”
Poropatich hopes the first prototype will be ready for testing on animals in about three years. At first, there will be two models — one for pulmonary contusion and one for hemorrhage — and then a third model for the combined traumas, as might be seen on someone caught in an explosion on the battlefield.
The project involves about 16 physicians and engineers from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and several other institutions. The project is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.