World’s first robotic ultrasound developed at Deakin University

With ageing populations becoming a global trend, the challenge to deliver high quality and cost-effective healthcare is a significant worldwide challenge.

Melbourne’s Deakin University is tackling this challenge head-on by developing the world’s first remote ultrasound technology, using Haptically Enabled Robotics (HER) .

Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra, has provided the financial and technical support and is actively involved in expanding the technology and developing it commercially.

High tech combined with ease of use

The device has the potential to dramatically improve access to diagnostic tools for patients living in areas poorly served by medical services.

Professor Saeid Nahavandi, Director of Deakin’s Institute for Intelligent Systems Research, is excited by the technology’s accessibility and ease of use: “A skilled sonographer or doctor in a regional hub or capital city can log on to the system and immediately be able to see you and take over control of the machine, ” he said.

They can then perform the ultrasound and provide a diagnosis using two-way audiovisual communication.

A virtual medical experience

The system allows for remote controlling of ultrasounds from up to 1,000 kilometres away and has already been successfully tested, using data links between Melbourne and several rural Australian cities.

The principal advantage of the haptic technology is its ability to translate the sense of touch to the operator. With the addition of stereovision, an operator’s situational awareness is improved by giving them depth perception, which also contributes to the accuracy and efficiency of the ultrasound.

The system can be applied to abdominal ultrasound imaging to examine a patient’s kidneys, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen and abdominal aorta. With further development it may also be used in obstetric ultrasound examinations.

Innovative research and commercial expertise

Kannan Alagappan, Director of Technology and Strategy at Telstra, says his company was the perfect partner for the project, bringing network expertise and capabilities, along with commercial experience.

“Early stage testing has extended the trial beyond initial expectations by proving the technology on Telstra’s 4G wireless network. It’s now portable and expandable enough to cover more than 97 per cent of Australia’s population,” he said.

Although the system still needs to go through a formal approval and certification process, Telstra and Deakin University are actively seeking partners and exploring a number of paths to bring the technology to market, with robotic companies from Europe and the United States already showing significant interest.

Global potential

Professor Glen Guest, Deakin University clinician and Epworth Chair in Surgery, has been part of the project since it began. He believes the technology has enormous global potential, not only at a commercial level but also at a humanitarian one.

Professor Guest, who also does a significant amount of work in parts of the world with severely limited medical expertise, such as East Timor and remote parts of Indonesia, says “being able to bring this device to the people would be fantastic. All they need is an internet connection and most places these days have this.”

Professor Guest says that highly populated and developing countries, such as India, are likely to take up this technology and greatly benefit from it.