Battlefield robot detects shrapnel

Guns + bombs + corrugated metal = shrapnel galore
Guns + bombs + corrugated metal = shrapnel galore

Move over MASH, tomorrow's military medics could be made of metal.

Bioengineers at Duke University in North Carolina have developed a robot that can locate tiny pieces of metal within flesh and guide a needle to their exact location, all without human assistance.

The engineers started with a tabletop robot whose eyes use a new 3D ultrasound technology developed at Duke.

3D robotic surgeon

An artificial intelligence program takes the real-time 3D information, processes it and moves the robot's arms. In their simulations, the researchers used tiny (2mm) pieces of needle because, like shrapnel, they are subject to magnetism.

"We attached an electromagnet to our 3D probe, which caused the shrapnel to vibrate just enough that its motion could be detected," said bioengineer AJ Rogers. "Once the shrapnel's coordinates were established by the computer, it successfully guided a needle to the site of the shrapnel."

Team leader Stephen Smith said, "It can be very difficult using conventional means to detect small pieces of shrapnel, especially in the field. The military has an extensive program of exploring the use of surgical robots in the field, and this advance could play a role."

The researchers believe that similar robots could also be used to place and remove the radioactive 'seeds' used to treat prostate and other cancers.

The robot used in these experiments is a tabletop version capable of moving in three axes. For the next series of tests, the Duke researchers plan to use a robotic arm with six-axis capability.