​Deakin Uni develops haptically-enabled robotics tool for ultrasounds

Deakin University, in conjunction with Telstra, has developed haptically-enabled robotics technology to allow the remote controlling of ultrasounds from up to 1,000 kilometres away.

Melbourne's Deakin University has developed remote controlled, haptically-enabled technology that aims to improve access to diagnostics tools for geographically isolated patients.

The Haptically-Enabled Robotics (HER) remote ultrasound technology was born out of Deakin University's Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation, with Telstra jumping on board to provide the university with funding and technical support as part of the telco giant's Research Partner Program.

The institute's director, professor Saeid Nahavandi, said the partnership resulted in a world-first trial of the HER technology, which was successfully tested using data links between Melbourne, and regional and rural cities within Australia.

"Our aim is to develop advanced haptic, or force feedback, and stereovision capability for remote ultrasound procedures," Nahavandi said.

"It will increase the availability of ultrasound diagnosis for regional patients, which is incredibly important, but it will also minimise potential errors, saving time that might be spent having the patient rescanned or transported to a regional hub."

Nahavandi said a principal advantage of the system is the ability to translate the sense of touch to the operator.

"Haptic feedback allows an operator to feel and experience the remote environment, through the robotic system, as though they were interacting with it directly," he said.

"The addition of stereovision can improve operator situational awareness by giving the operator depth perception, which also contributes to the accuracy and efficiency of the ultrasound."

The system can be applied to abdominal ultrasound imaging to evaluate a patient's kidneys, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen, the abdominal aorta, and other blood vessels of the abdomen, and can also be used for the diagnosis of abdominal pain, abnormal liver function and an enlarged abdominal organ.

According to Telstra, the advancement means patients may soon be able to undergo ultrasound diagnostics by remote, with the ultrasound unit and medical professional capable of being up to 1,000 kilometres apart, using Telstra's 4G wireless network to connect.

Both Telstra and Deakin are actively seeking partners and exploring a number of paths to bring the technology to market.

In October, a remotely-controlled robotic telepresence training tool took up its tenure at Tasmania's Royal Hobart Hospital, a large tertiary referral centre and a training hospital that is geographically disadvantaged.

At the time, staff specialist anaesthetist Dr Savas Totonidis told ZDNet that despite the hospital's geographic isolation, it is the tertiary referral centre for the state, which means it is still expected to have the equipment to the standard that other major teaching hospitals would have.

The remotely-controlled robotic tool enables a clinical partner to deliver interactive, hands-on training sessions to the Royal Hobart Hospital, working similarly to a conference call.

"[This technology] is a combination of a few technologies; it's a video teleconferencing technology, so we can have two-way vision between the expert and ourselves; it lives on a pedestal and has an arm in which the expert on the other end of the line can swivel and turn around; and also, it has a camera on it that can zoom in to very high magnifications on little parts of machines or equipment," Totonidis said.

"It can be utilised to essentially take the place of a person that would be here doing the training.

"Obviously the best case would be to have a physical person here, but when it's not possible, this is a suitable alternative and will actually contribute to the greater good, because it will be accessible to more people and more locations than we currently have."