I’m just finishing up a chapter in my DARPA book on the Trauma Pod project.

Last month I visited the project’s headquarters at SRI International in Menlo Park, California, where I snapped this picture of the robot surgical system at the heart of the program.

Rick Satava, an Army surgeon, started what became Trauma Pod at DARPA in the 1990s. He left DARPA for the Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command just before a successful Phase I demo at SRI last year.

What you see here is a modified da Vinci Surgical System (developed at SRI and commercialized by Intuitive Surgical) poised over a fake patient, with a robot scrub nurse awaiting instructions in the foreground. Phase I answered the question “can a robotic system treat wounded soldiers in the battlefield?” with an unqualified “Yes.”

Next steps: take the remote human surgeon out of the loop by completely automating several of the most essential trauma operations, and then shrink this stuff down to a size that can roll on an armored personnel carrier or fly in a black hawk helicopter.

The goal is to enable soldiers on the battlefield to load wounded comrades into the trauma pod and have the system go to work immediately patching up hemorrhaging blood vessels and collapsed lungs, buying precious minutes in which to get to a field hospital.

Battlefield trauma surgery is just the beginning, Satava tells me. He envisions a day when surgeons compose operations on computer systems much the way writers like me use word processing software to write articles.

Here I am test-driving SRI’s latest surgical robot, the M7, in a photo by SRI public relations consultant Deborah Lacy. Just like word processing? Let’s just say it’s a good thing there wasn’t a real patient on the table. You can see the instruments I’m remotely manipulating on the monitor behind my head.

Satava’s surgeon of the future (50 years from now, Satava figures) would work on a three-dimensional representation of a patient created from a head-to-toe CT scan. After perfecting the operation, he or she would hit a command to “print” the procedure on the actual patient. As Satava put it to me:

You…send the image to the surgeon. He spends a few minutes and gets…exactly what he wants without damaging the patient–being able to edit it and then just send it out–and bing, bing, bing, it’s all done by the robot immediately.

The advantage, says Satava, will be surgery done up to 12 times faster and 15 times more accurately than by an unassisted human surgeon. In other words, a procedure that takes an hour in today’s operating rooms could be shaved down to just 5 minutes.