Swinburne University of Technology mechanical and industrial engineering PhD student Mauricio Hidalgo spent 2020 preparing a robot to perform cardiac ultrasound examination remotely.
Little did he realise just how remotely his work would be taking place.
“After living in Melbourne for three years, my wife and I returned to Colombia early in 2020 to briefly visit our families. Then the pandemic hit and we were stranded far from friends, our home and my research,” says Mauricio.
The PhD student’s work is to prepare a robot to conduct cardiac ultrasound examination remotely. A successful project means specialist services such as echocardiology could be provided to patients in remote areas of Australia, increasing the likelihood of a quick diagnosis and treatment for those with common heart conditions – especially in an emergency.
Swift negotiations took place via supervisors from Swinburne and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute to enable Mauricio to continue his co-funded scholarship and research project. Swinburne supervisor roboticist Dr Mats Isaksson and Baker Institute sonographer, Dr Leah Wright worked out a plan for Mauricio to continue his work from Colombia in what they hoped would be the short term.
Adversity drives innovation
“We have a robot at Swinburne and were planning to test and do all the computing required locally,” says Mauricio.
“When the pandemic hit we changed our approach. We worked on a robot simulation controlled by a kind of joystick (haptic device) with force feedback enabled, which I built here in Medellin. Like a computer game from Colombia on the computer in Melbourne.
“Luckily, I had my laptop with me, and with a family of nine siblings in Colombia I had some choices of where to stay. One of my brothers offered me a room and fortunately he has a good internet connection.”
Specialist pieces to keep working were begged, borrowed and sometimes even built from scratch.
“I had a 3D printer from friends and used my contacts to source equipment from engineering degree colleagues at the local university. I set up a ‘lab’ in my brother’s spare room,” Mauricio adds.
“But I needed motors, sensors and mechanical pieces, and restrictions in Colombia limited our daily movement. I sourced some items online and then designed the rest myself: creating my own parts. It took a couple of months to build, but I really learnt how to use all the tools available.”
While his research continued, Mauricio was glad to have the support of Swinburne colleagues, supervisors and friends to chat about challenges and give advice about the PhD process.
“I still feel very much a part of Swinburne. My supervisor checks in regularly to see how I’m going, not just on my project, and my friends at uni and at home are there.
“Another friend in Melbourne had a related project and is now connecting the robot for me at the Swinburne lab. Then I can connect from here to Hawthorn to move our project from the simulator to the remote control of the actual robot.
“But I miss our life in Melbourne and hope I can come back really soon to continue my studies.”