AMRC: The Robots Saving Lives in Danger Zones

If you are injured in a disaster zone, it is critical that you receive medical care as urgently as possible. But what if the environment is not safe for medics to enter? The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has created pioneering robotics technology to get medics into difficult-to-access areas to triage patients using medical telexistence (MediTel) technology.

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Whether caught up during a natural disaster or trapped in a hazardous location, some medical emergencies are a danger not only to the patient but to the medics who are called upon to save them. But what if you could send a robot medic in to scout the dangers before a human even steps on the scene? One that can deliver first-line medical care, check vitals, and even deliver medicine? That would be game-changing. MediTel is a first-of-its-kind product with the potential to save lives developed by the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

About the AMRC Design Lab

The AMRC Design Lab at the University of Sheffield looks at a whole range of different technologies from electronics to software design to robotics and does a lot of work in immersive technology and how to use augmented reality and virtual reality to improve design processes and improve interfaces to systems.

About MediTel

“The project was extremely challenging; it was nine months from start to end,” said David King, head of digital design at the AMRC. The AMRC applied and won a defence competition, the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA). A project sponsored by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), they wanted people to prototype technologies for teleexistence, or telepresence. “It’s essentially where you have a remote operator, in this case with a VR headset, controlling a robotic autonomous system, and to give that immersive presence to the remote operator so they essentially feel as if they are at that location,” David explained. “It has two VR controllers – left and right, essentially like tank controls. The VR headset gives a 360 view.”

The brief

The team developed all aspects of MediTel, from the operator interface to the robotics system, based on trying to triage casualties in a hostile environment. “It could be chemical, it could be biological, but essentially where you’ve got casualties, but it’s dangerous to send in medics. Things like earthquakes, humanitarian disasters, or a terrorist incident where there could be explosives still in the environment,” said David. “In those situations, they wanted to be able to send in systems to perform a basic triage on casualties while making sure that the medics are in a safe zone away from the dangerous area.”

The challenge

They were given certain triage tasks they had to complete, so they had to take a temperature, they had to be able to remotely communicate with the patient, apply a painkiller, take a pulse, and do a palpation and remotely feel the abdomen of the casualty for any objects that might be there. They put all this together with several different sensors and camera systems, and ultimately, at the end of the project, demonstrated this to various stakeholders in defense from the MoD to Dstl, to a whole range of people. It’s been well received

About the AMRC

The AMRC was formed just over 20 years ago, focused on improving manufacturing techniques for aerospace, so Boeing were one of the early partners. It’s progressed significantly from looking at the whole manufacturing process; over several years now very much focused on digital technologies associated with manufacturing. “Industry 4.0 is a bit of a buzzword that’s thrown around quite a lot, and it’s really all the technologies associated with that. It’s robotics and future manufacturing techniques. We would work with partners to prototype and develop those technologies,” said David.

Developing specialist tools

The AMRC works on everything from aerospace to medical projects to space projects and defense projects, including a prototype CubeSat launch as well as various kinds of medical tools and standard medical devices that the robot can automatically pick up. “In this case, we’ve got a standard auto-injector, an off-the-shelf infrared thermometer, and we have a blood pressure cuff as well, which we can put on there. But there are some tools that we had to develop ourselves,” explained David. “In terms of remotely performing an examination of a casualty's abdomen, that’s not an off-the-shelf piece of kit. We developed a tactile sensor that would feed information back through to the operator so they would be able to identify if there were any unknown objects, or unexpected objects, in the casualty's abdomen such as shrapnel.”

Fit for the environment

All the communication is via a very, very high bandwidth, like 5G. Everything is passed through that link. It contains the control system for the robot itself, as well as several different camera systems. Sat on the top of the UGV itself is a 360 camera which is streamed to the virtual reality headset, so it feels as if the operator is effectively sat on top of the UGV itself. The unit weighs around 400kg, so the AMRC partnered with a company that provided a tracked platform to use as the base. It’s a very rugged platform which was developed for agriculture. “It was important to start with something which was fit for the environment,” said David. “This thing is designed for going around farms and pretty rugged terrain.”

Dealing with fatigue

The AMRC is currently looking at new sensor technologies to monitor the user in terms of how fatigued they are getting. One thing to consider with these things is that VR headsets are designed to be worn quite short-term – 30 minutes to an hour. Some of these missions could be multiple hours, so 6, 7, 8 hours, so there’s work there to understand how to do that and enable operators to work for extended periods within these kinds of immersive environments. It is designed for emergency situations so they can be quite intense, stressful environments, with potentially multiple casualties to triage and assess. Doing that over a long period can be quite intense.

Real-world use

One solution to combat fatigue could be multiple operators, so one operator gets the robot platform to where it needs to be before they hand over to a medic to perform a triage. The NHS has specific teams for large-scale, mass-casualty incidents, so they would be the obvious user. If a large incident was declared, they would contact this team, a bit like the SEAL team, that kind of thing. They would arrive on the scene and assess, and they have specialist equipment to deal with these situations. This MediTel would be a potential piece of their equipment, one of their tools, if you like, that they could deploy in these situations.

The new reality sooner than you think

These systems would typically be part of a larger system. In terms of practically implementing it, you would probably have a companion drone system. This would arrive at a scene, the drone would go out and survey the area and identify casualties, and while the drone is doing that, the system starts to travel to the casualties to triage. This was the first time that the MOD had seen a fully integrated system like this with everything brought together into a platform that was suitable for the environment within which it was being asked to work. “Ultimately, we will be looking to save lives,” said David. “That’s what we want to do with this system, what it’s capable of. And it’s realistic, I think, within one to two years that that would be a reality.”

The power of Creo

The AMRC, a world leader in manufacturing excellence, has used the power of Creo to bring lifesaving ‘Robo Doctor’ technology closer to market. They used Creo’s integrated simulation capabilities to validate the design to ensure the product was ready for manufacturing, all within a matter of weeks. Its time to market and precise engineering is going to be really important for something this complex with so many different engineering factors. When you're designing something like a piece of manufacturing equipment, there are all sorts of requirements from mechanical requirements, thermal requirements, and simulations which can get pretty complex. So teams like this are going to have simulation experts that are going to be focused on some really high level simulations, but there's also going to be a pretty wide array of in-process simulations that need to occur as the design is being developed.


Thanks to Brian and to David for giving us a glimpse into Meditel's incredible, life-saving capabilities.

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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou. Recording by Alisdair McGregor. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode Guests

Dave King, Head of AMRC Digital Design

More About AMRC

Brian Thompson, Divisional GM, CAD Segment at PTC

More About Creo