Australians may soon be able to undergo ultrasound diagnostics by remote, thanks to world first robotics technology developed by Deakin University in partnership with Telstra. Darren Van Ginkel from our Chief Technology Office takes a look at the technology and what it means for you.

The technology

The objective of the HER (Haptically-Enabled Robotics) project is to develop advanced haptic (force feedback) and stereovision capability for remote ultrasound procedures, a system that is capable of being controlled over Australia’s telecommunication network.

In the future, a number of remote communities could be supplied with an ultrasound ‘robot’ for medical diagnosis requirements. When needed, a skilled sonographer or doctor could log onto the system from their home location and perform the diagnosis with haptic, stereovision and full two-way audio visual communications.

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

A principal advantage of this 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. This project addresses the tele-operation control system requirements for robust manipulator control over the internet.

The system has been successfully demonstrated using data links to represent network latency existing between Melbourne and several regional and rural cities within Australia.

Early stage testing has extended the trial beyond initial expectations by proving the technology on Telstra’s 4G wireless network making the system truly portable and expandable to cover over 97% of Australia’s population.

What it means for you

Ultrasound is a type of imaging which uses high-frequency sound waves to look at organs and structures inside the body. Healthcare professionals use it to view the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, liver, and other organs.

The haptics robotics technology (once in market) means that people who live in regional Australian communities would have increased access to sonography services – which are used in the detection and treatment of heart disease, heat attack and vascular disease that can lead to stroke.

Sonography is also used to guide fine needle tissue biopsies for taking cell samples from an organ for lab testing (such as testing for cancer).

The sonographer or doctor controls the robotic ‘arm’, their movements are sent in real time across the 4G network to the other half of the robot which is being operated at the patient end. The system can translate a sense of touch to the doctor as if he was in the same room as the patient.

Currently people who live in remote areas experience a delay between having an ultrasound and receiving the results – which happens once their scans have been sent to a physician and reviewed, a process that can take weeks.

The real time nature of this technology means that this delay is eliminated, as results are delivered immediately. This will also reduce the need for patients to be rescanned, which can be required if the physician has follow up questions upon receiving the initial scans.

Ultimately this is about early detection of issues and improving patient care in regional Australia – innovating to make our healthcare systems even better.