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NASA, DoD in underwater astronaut doc-bot trial

IP-controlled surgery may give new meaning to the term 'hacker'

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American surgeons will carry out a realistic simulation of zero-gee robotic surgery next month, the Associated Press reports.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) "Raven" robo-surgeon is being developed with the intention of treating injured soldiers on far-flung battlefields where no human doc may be available. It reportedly weighs no more than 50 pounds, and can be "dismantled, transported and set up by non-engineers". Naming a device designed to cut up wounded soldiers after a carrion-eating bird of ill omen seems like an odd call, but there you go.

The mechanical scalpel-wielder lacks any Terminator-style detailed files on human anatomy, and can't carry out operations autonomously. Rather, it is controlled over an IP connection by a suitably-qualified human doctor, who thus needn't venture too far from the golf course or yacht.

Raven has already carried out simulated warzone trials last year in California, with the comms link provided by an unmanned drone aircraft circling overhead. Next month's test, however, will be rather more involved. Surgeons in Seattle will hook up via a commercial internet connection to Key Largo in Florida, on the other side of the US. From there the signal will pass over a wireless link to a buoy out at sea, and then down a cable to a NASA "research pod" 60 feet beneath the waves. The underwater facility, known as the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory, is used by the space agency to simulate the effects of zero gravity.

Two astronauts and a flight surgeon will be in the pod with Raven, but they will take no part in the test beyond setting the droid doc up and plugging it in. From there, the Seattle surgeons will take over. They will attempt to sew up a tear in a rubber tube, simulating a blood vessel, and "do a skill test used to judge student doctors".

The Raven team think the biggest difficulty will be the expected one-second latency in the link between Seattle and the Florida seabed. However, they reckon the docs will be able to cope. The AP quotes Mitchell Lum, a researcher on the project, as saying that: "We think they will take longer to complete the tasks but we don't think it's undoable."

Which is nice.

NASA is paying for this latest test of the DoD's gear, as it thinks Raven might be handy in the event of an astronaut suffering a medical emergency of some sort while in space. The space agency will also, reportedly, trial other lightweight digi-docs for purposes of comparison.

Even in the event of a successful test, however, it may still be some time before people routinely allow themselves to be cut open by robot arms tipped with gleaming surgical instruments. For one thing, the AP notes that none of NASA's candidate cutter-bots have yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on humans.

Other issues could be raised by the use of commercial IP to control the carving. Prospective patients would presumably want to see extremely strong authentication on that connection. Some kind of doc-in-the-middle attack might otherwise be on the cards. And a blackhat-controlled zombie bot-surgeon hacked for medical pranks or illegal experiments doesn't even bear thinking about.

Insert your cut-and-paste jokes here. ®

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