Naina Iyengar
Naina Iyengar
High School Honorable Mention: 2011 Engineering & Human Service - Relief from a Disaster Essay Contest
South Brunswick High School
New Jersey
Help me, Dr. Telerobot!

Telemedicine, a field that actively integrates video and communication modes, has revolutionized the worlds of robotics engineering and medicine by use of its critical component, the Telerobot. Robust and mobile, this machine can transmit audiovisual feeds from all over the world, making possible the phenomenon of telepresence, the illusion that one is face to face with the individual on the screen [1]. Designed to embody human facial expressions and mimic social interactions, the Telerobot can act as a tentative substitute for the presence of doctors attempting to reach areas devastated by disasters, and can provide a means for coaching local physicians/medical personnel through procedures that would rescue individuals who would otherwise experience lifelong debilitation or serious medical injuries if not treated at or near the time of injury.

The Mebot, designed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and redesigned at the University of Iceland in 2007 (the fourth prototype), is one of many models of the Telerobot that exist in the modern world. Mechanically, it has three degrees of freedom in its arm region, able to rotate and extend its shoulder and lengthen its elbow, and its neck is elevated from its shoulder as to allow the head, an OQO model (a portable computer), to rotate independently of the arms. Employing high torque, noiseless digital servo motors (controlling systems capable of rotation) in the neck, the Telerobots’ many mechanical components are efficiently concealed to convey and maximize the humanness of it (the large base of the robot cloaks the batteries and circuits underneath it as well). The integrated electrics include a master board, which assembles bits from different parts of the machine (battery voltage, electrical impulses, motor and sensory commands) into one “information package” to be delivered to the OQO. Furthermore, the use of multiple range sensors widens the periphery of view for individuals not in the immediate surroundings of the disaster scene, with two sensors in front, two sensors on the side, and one sensor in the back of the Telerobot’s head. The operator’s interface gives the user complete dominance over his/her angle of vision through the screen, rotation of its components, as well as mobility of the robot (it utilizes both a direct control interface as well as a graphical interface, which is a graphical representation of the degrees of freedom of the parts of the Telerobot, and may be considered more user-friendly). [1]

The primary goal of Telemedicine is to facilitate long distance human interaction by use of the Telerobot, which means that the Telerobot must impersonate humans as much as possible. One such way that the Mebot puts social interaction to use is through the specialized “Head-Movement Control Software”, which maps both the 3-D location and orientation of a human face and adjusts its OQO accordingly. Additionally, the various prototypes of Telerobots strive to express transmission in real time, through varying softwares suited to the electrical and mechanical design of the specific model. On top of that, some prototypes, the Mebot included, create computerized models of the operator’s face (rather than showing his/her face itself), to ease the manipulation of rotation and make eye contact between the sending and receiving ends more accurate. Experimental tests to measure “Copresence”, or the comfort each end experiences through the communication process has indicated both success and room for improvement, but innovations in the design of the Telerobot might shape a robot more socially adept and more susceptible to mechanical manipulation that would allow it to be positioned at angles which would make it appear more human. [1]

Other areas of improvement deal with electrical and mechanical efficiency of the robot (it has to be able to move and send/receive signals from perhaps across the globe at the same time). Such an energy consuming device would surely also need protective measures to ensure that it would not burn or break down while operating. However, the occupation of creating a “human” entity out of pieces of machinery greatly overshadows the tasks of making existing processes more efficient. The lapse in time between conveyed and received information between two points in the world has been the primary constraint on the Telerobot’s design, along with its inability to exceed human walking speed or detect movement past the operator’s range of detection [2]. Especially in terms of doctor-patient relationships, social interaction may be vital to effectively diagnosing and treating injuries. During disasters, waves of panic spread over victims and their families, and cooperation may be essential to both calming the victim down and creating a safe environment for treatment (in instances where psychological trauma is present and solace is sought by the victim, a blurry image with no discernable trace of expression will not register as a source of help). Moreover, the movement of the Telerobot will be restricted by different environments – the materials which establish its wheels may be more sturdy in some environments over others. A hard plastic wheel may be better at roving rough terrain, but may fail to move in muddy landslides or may fail to be able to plough through metal and wood debris generated by a tornado. However, the Telerobot should be used as a primary tool in disaster relief everywhere anyway because – apart an individual’s destroyed home, shortened water supply, and scarcity of available food (all issues in the long run) – an individual prioritizes human life in a post-disaster scenario, as the immediate causes for concern from a disaster are acquired injuries.

The complexity of the Telerobot is evidence of its’ being a compilation of numerous integrated disciplines of engineering. These disciplines include, but are not limited to, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, robotic engineering, computer engineering, audio/video engineering, design engineering, manufacturing engineering, model engineering, and software engineering. The chief physical structure of the Telerobot is crafted by mechanical engineers, and the chief processes of the Telerobots are designed by electrical engineers. Both disciplines constitute the integrated discipline of robotic engineering. Audio and video engineers perfect the communication feeds which define the Telerobot. Model, design, and computer engineers use computer software systems to implement and test models of the device before they are built. Once they are built, manufacturing engineers mandate the production and the commercialization of them. Nevertheless, once the collective vision of these engineers has been met, the end product is rewarding. Inexpensive with respect to its output, the Telerobot may be manufactured and sold in geological risk areas in distinctive parts of the world including in 3rd world countries, and has the potential of saving millions of lives that would have otherwise been lost to disasters. On a more grand scale, it is destined to become the mode of emergency medicine (perhaps even medicine in general) in the near future. As for now, the Telerobot is bound to make headlines in rescue missions everywhere around the world – whether it is in disaster relief from a tsunami, earthquake, tornado, even a terrorist attack – very, very soon.

Works Cited

[1] Adalgeirsson, Sigurdur Om. "DSpace@MIT." MeBot: A Robotic Platform for Socially Embodied Telepresence. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. Web. 2 Feb 2011. .
[2] Desai, Munjal, Katherine M. Tsui, and Holly A. Yanco. "Robotics." Essential Features of Telepresence Robots. University of Massachusetts Lowell, n.d. Web. 2 Feb 2011.