Hacking when it Counts: Surviving the Burma Death Railway

In the early days of World War II, the Japanese army invaded Burma (now Myanmar) and forced an end to British colonial rule there. Occupying Burma required troops and massive amounts of materiel, though, and the Japanese navy was taking a beating on the 2,000 mile sea route around the Malay Peninsula. And so it was decided that a railway connecting Thailand and Burma would be constructed through dense tropical jungle over hilly terrain with hundreds of rivers, including the Kwae Noi River, made famous by the Hollywood treatment of the story in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story of what came to be known as the Burma Death Railway is far grislier than any movie could make it, and the ways that the prisoners who built it managed to stay alive is a fascinating case study in making do with what you’ve got and finding solutions that save lives.

Nutrition from Next-to Nothing

POWs in camp. [Source: The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass]
Labor for the massive project was to come from the ultimate spoil of war – slaves. About 250,000 to 300,000 slaves were used to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Among them were about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, primarily Australian, Dutch, British and American. POWs were singled out for especially brutal treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, with punishment meted out with rifle butt and bamboo pole.

With the POWs was Doctor Henri Hekking, who had been born and raised in the former Dutch East Indies colony of Java (now Indonesia). He had spent his early years with his grandmother, a master herbalist who served as “doctor” for the native villagers. Inspired by his oma’s skill and convinced that the cure for any endemic disease can be found in the plants in the area, Dr. Hekking returned to Java as an officer in the Dutch army after completing medical school in the Netherlands.

After his capture by the Japanese, Dr. Hekking did everything he could to help his fellow POWs despite the complete lack of medical supplies, all the while suffering from the same miserable treatment. Hekking realized early on that the starvation rations the POWs endured were the main cause of disease in the camps; a cup of boiled white rice doesn’t provide much energy for men building a railway by hand in jungle heat, and provides none of the B vitamins needed by the body.

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Finally, a practical use for the Leap

Robots used in laparoscopic surgery are fairly commonplace, but controlling them is far from simple. The usual setup is something akin to a Waldo-style manipulator, allowing a surgeon to cut, cauterise, and stitch from across a room. There is another way to go about this thanks to some new hardware, as [Sriranjan] shows us with his Leap-controlled surgery bot.

[Sriranjan] isn’t using a real laparoscopic surgery robot for his experiments. Instead, he’s using the Le-Sur simulator that puts two virtual robot arms in front of a surgeon in training. Each of these robotic arms have seven degrees of freedom, and by using two Leap controllers (one each in a VM), [Sriranjan] was able to control both of them using his hands.

We’ve seen a lot of creative applications for the Leap sensor, like controlling quadcopters, controlling hexapod robots, and controlling more quadcopters, but this is the first time we’ve seen the Leap do something no other controller can – emulating the delicate touch of a surgeon’s hand

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Robotic eye surgery controlled with magnets

If you’re in need of eye surgery you might just find yourself strapped into this contraption. It’s a magnetic field generator used to manipulate a tiny, untethered probe. It’s called OctoMag and the idea is that a robot less than half a millimeter in size is injected into your vascular system and, through the use of those coils, it busts up blood clots in the small passages inside of the eye.

Once you’ve seen the clip after the break we’re sure you’ll agree that this is amazing technology. Nonetheless it makes us cringe to think of the procedure done on a living organism but we’re sure that fear will subside given time. For now this seems more like a treatment from A Clockwork Orange.

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