In the deep blue waters off the coast of Key Largo, NASA's "aquanauts" are hard at work. Sixty feet below the waves, they are busy practicing the same types of tasks that they may one day be required to perform in trips to the great beyond.
This harsh aquatic environment, NASA believes, is the closest real experience to space that the earth-bound world can provide. Those zero-gravity trips aboard its "vomit comet" plane are simply entirely too short-lived.
Their work is part of the NEEMO 12 Project, which stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation. And the research results that they continue to gather there may one day help to underpin missions to Mars and beyond.
But among all of the trial runs in simulated spacewalking techniques, there is another and even more important experiment going on. It is being sponsored by the Defense Department, and its star attraction is a portable robotic surgeon.
Its next stop, depending on the outcome of these and other experiments, may be to help save the lives of wounded soldiers along with sick astronauts.
Called the Raven, the mobile surgical robot will be used to suture up a rubber tube in a fair approximation of the conditions necessary for suturing a single blood vessel in the field. More importantly, though, the experimenters also hope to demonstrate that this complicated set of machinery can be assembled and set up by a group of non-engineers in a zero-gravity environment.
Once assembled, its robotic arms holding surgical instruments will be manipulated by a surgeon in far off Seattle seated in front of a computer monitor. The surgeon's commands will travel over a standard internet connection to Florida, where they will transmitted wirelessly to a floating link offshore.
The NEEMO 12 experiments are a follow-on to earlier trials conducted as part of a U.S. Army project called "High Altitude Platforms Mobile Robotic Telesurgery." Those experiments involved operating the robot using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as its airborne communications link. The link was provided using a UAV manufactured by AeroEnvironment (AVAV: NASDAQ), a company that we've covered before in these pages.
UAVs were chosen over satellites because of the lag time involved in data transmission form outer space. AeroEnvironment's "PUMA" autonomously circled 200 meters overhead while data packets streamed through the UAV to ground stations.
The end result of all of these experiments, the Defense Department hopes, will be the eventual fielding of what it calls a "Trauma Pod." Its objective is to project the skilled hands of a surgeon directly to the battlefield from an "operating room" far from the scene of the fighting; to devise a portable "operating-room-on-a-stretcher" that could eventually be carried by troops into battle using Humvees, helicopters, or other vehicles.
The machine would scan, diagnose and treat patients with surgery, if necessary, long before they could eventually be evacuated for further treatment.
Future systems may even be designed to employ their own robotic "nurse" to assist the robot in changing its tools.
This visionary program is being led by SRI International along with contributions from the University of Washington, the University of Texas, the University of Maryland and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. General Electric, General Dynamics, Robotic Surgical Tech and Intuitive Surgical all have contributed to the growing project.
As wild and far off as some of these projects sound, they would hardly surprise the many thousands of patients who have been treated by one form of robotic surgery or another since these wondrous machines began winning FDA approval.
The differences, of course, are the distances and conditions involved. Your own doctor and his robo-enabled surgeon will be likely in the same room, which certainly beats an internet connection from thousands of miles away to the bottom of the sea.
Next week we'll be taking look at some of the companies whose robots are already being used in the world's hospitals. They may not be as wild as what the Army has in mind, but they are more common than you may know.
And better than that, their profits are growing right along with their fame.
By the Way: Israel, as you well know, is sometimes as very dangerous place. But what you might not know about the tiny nation is that it has more companies listed on U.S. exchanges than any other foreign country in the world other than Canada.
That's why, despite the dangers, Sam Hopkins is headed there next month to track down some new investment opportunities.
The good news is I won't have to go with him to gain any of his insights on these great companies, and neither will you.
Sam will be joining us as a regular contributor starting on Monday.
Welcome aboard, Sam.
Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,
Steve Christ, Editor