Features April 2014 Issue

Beaming Down Satcom Surgeons

The Future

Photos courtesy of Human Edge

Human Edge has explored using multiple Hughes BGAN routers to boost data transmission speeds enough for streaming video via satphone.

While this equipment is well beyond the reach of ordinary sailors today, a future in which we can get a full checkup using a doctor ashore while underway isn’t as far away as it seems. For a glimpse of this future, we need look no further than the U.S. military. The Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), an office of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, is exploring the many ways telemedicine can support its soldiers. Its projects include a highly mobile “humanoid” robot known as the BEAR robot, which is designed to rescue fallen soldiers on the battlefield.

The research center also examines the technology that can enable a surgeon to remotely perform an operation using a computer-operated robot. One active example of these surgical robots is called DaVinci, made by Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, Calif. Already in use at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., DaVinci has limbs that can be guided by a surgeon who sits at a console in the same room. The surgeon views the operation via three-dimensional imagery supplied by the robot’s cameras.

Although such relatively large and expensive robots may seem of little value aboard a cruising sailboat today, miniaturization and lower costs are opening up new possibilities for what may one day be standard equipment.

Currently, the biggest challenges to tele-robotic surgery are linked to limited bandwidth, which slows down data transmission speeds. There is simply too much lag time via satellite between the field medic (or robot) and doctors at the hospital or command center on the far side of the world. While these connectivity problems are surmountable, one fixed limitation—the speed of light—will remain a problem for procedures performed by surgeons thousands of miles away.

For several years, Human Edge has been searching for inexpensive ways to boost bandwidth. By linking two Inmarsat 9202 satellite phones together, using a Hughes BGAN router and a second router in the Cloud, they have achieved respectable data transmission speeds of up to 800 kilobytes per second. By connecting three of these Satphones, the speeds exceeded 1 megabyte, or (1,000 kilobytes), the minimum for video transmission.

This modular approach helps bring down the cost, but it’s still not cheap. The Human Edge system with Satphones, laptop, solar panel, batteries, and a few accessories sells for less than $4,000, and this doesn’t include the data transmission plan, which can add up quickly, depending on usage. Weight, which varies depending on equipment, is about 18 pounds, but that is coming down.

“The trend is moving toward iPhones and Androids and getting away from heavy, power-hungry units like [ruggedized laptops],” Human Edge founder Sjogren said.

While telemedicine providers are optimistic about the future, they agree that sailors will still have the biggest responsibility for their own health. Without pre-training and a good onboard medical kit, even the best advice will be of limited help.

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