Boston Dynamics Is Bringing Its Legged Robots to Hospitals
Denrie Caila Perez posted on September 29, 2020 |
The robotics company is shifting its focus to solutions to combat COVID-19.
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot. (Photo courtesy of MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Boston Dynamics.)
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot. (Photo courtesy of MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Boston Dynamics.)

After its stint assisting Ford and the Denver International Airport this year, robotics design company Boston Dynamics is now turning its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, the company has been working for the past eight months to utilize its quadruple-legged robot Spot for health response. Spot is currently being used as a telepresence-based extension to minimize contact and exposure between health care workers and patients. 

To achieve this, Boston Dynamics also developed “a set of contactless monitoring systems for measuring vital signs and tablet computers to enable face-to-face medical interviewing,” which can be outfitted on Spot’s back. This allows the robot to collect necessary information and data from triage patients such as body temperature, respiration rate, pulse rate, and oxygen saturation. Coupled with the robot’s ability to easily navigate through complex environments and tight spots, it seems like an ideal solution for current conditions.The system was recently tested in a medical tent dedicated for COVID-19 triage, which had a relatively flat and organized environment, raising some doubt about whether a robot of this kind was really necessary. Some have stated that, while concrete bumps and curbs could be concerning, these can still be addressed with simple, cost-effective alterations to the environment itself. Because Spot is designed for rough terrain, many have questioned just how effective it can be for a hospital setting, considering also that the robot has a hefty $75,000 price tag.

Boston Dynamics’ VP Michael Perry admits that the company received similar comments from various critics, who suggested that perhaps adopting a wheeled platform would be a simpler solution. Perry shared on Twitter: “As triage tents started popping up in late March, though, there wasn’t confidence wheeled robots would be able to handle arbitrary triage environments (parking lots, lawns, etc.).” 

The company has released a paper on the effectiveness of the system during its triage tent trial run in response to the criticism.

A medical tent where Spot was tested. (Photo courtesy of MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Boston Dynamics)
A medical tent where Spot was tested. (Photo courtesy of MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Boston Dynamics)

According to Boston Dynamics’ roboticist Marco da Silva, “The Brigham and Women’s team was expecting long lines of patients at intake or patients seated in the tent. The expectation was that Spot could efficiently move from patient to patient.”

Field applications lead Seth Davis also added, “In addition to its mobility, our robots’ obstacle avoidance abilities and simple user interface also seemed appealing to the Brigham and Women’s team as they worked right out of the box and did not require additional development in order to get something their staff could use.”

Boston Dynamics has already received inquiries from hospitals in different countries that are interested in integrating Spot as a “just in case” solution or for instances “when their triage facilities need to be set up in an unknown environment.” The company is also currently exploring how to use the technology to deliver equipment, conduct rounds in facilities, as well as administer mobile disinfection.

For more news and stories, check out this simplified coronavirus exposure alert system developed by Apple and Google here.

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