Initially, it looks like a mechanical dog. And it very well may become the best friend of the hospital staff. Mobile robots have the ability to stand in for people in dangerous environments, and with the COVID-19 outbreak, these mechanized units can help keep personnel out of hospital triage units, which have become very hazardous areas.
During the current pandemic, Boston Dynamics has deployed a robot as a “mobile telemedicine platform” at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, located in Boston, to allow staff to remotely video conference with potentially infected individuals, who are being triaged for testing.
“We have spent the last six weeks building and testing a payload and application architecture that would enable our robot, Spot, to help reduce exposure of frontline healthcare workers to the novel COVID-19 virus,” according to a Boston Dynamics blog post. “We are open-sourcing the hardware and software designs used to get these robots into the field. Our hope is that these tools can enable developers and roboticists to rapidly deploy robots in order to reduce risks to medical staff.”
Starting in early March, Boston Dynamics started receiving inquiries from hospitals asking if its robots could help minimize their staff’s exposure to COVID-19. One of the hospitals that it spoke to shared that, within a week, a sixth of its staff had contracted COVID-19 and that they were looking into using robots to take more of their staff out of range of the novel coronavirus.
Based on the global shortage of critical personal protective equipment (PPE), Boston Dynamics has spent several weeks trying to better understand hospital requirements to develop a mobile robotics solution with its robot, dubbed Spot. The result is a legged robot application that can be deployed to support frontline staff responding to the pandemic in ad-hoc environments such as triage tents.
This is the second week of Spot’s presence at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where the medical team uses the robot as a mobile telemedicine platform, allowing healthcare providers to remotely triage patients.
“We’re listening to their feedback on how Spot can do more but are encouraged by reports that using the robot has helped their nursing staff minimize time exposed to potentially contagious patients,” Boston Dynamics said.
With current protocols at local hospitals, patients suspected to have COVID-19 are asked to line up in tents outside to answer questions and get initial assessments for temperature. This process requires up to five medical staff, placing those individuals at high risk of contracting the virus. With the use of a mobile robot, hospitals are able to reduce the number of necessary medical staff at the scene and conserve their limited PPE supply.
Through an iPad and a two-way radio mounted on a robot’s back, healthcare providers can video conference with patients as they remotely direct the mobile robot through lines of sick individuals in the tents. With this configuration, doctors are able to speak with patients from afar, possibly even from their own homes. For every intake shift completed by a teleoperated robot, at least one healthcare provider is able to reduce their interaction with the disease.
To further assist healthcare providers in triaging sick patients, the robot will need the ability to collect additional vital sign information: including body temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation
“We have been in dialogue with researchers who use thermal camera technology to measure body temperature and calculate respiratory rate. We’ve also applied externally-developed logic to externally-mounted RGB cameras to capture changes in blood vessel contraction to measure pulse rate. We are evaluating methods for measuring oxygen saturation,” Boston Dynamics said.
By attaching a UV-C light or other technology to the robot’s back, Spot could use the device to kill virus particles and disinfect surfaces in any unstructured space that needs support in decontamination – be it hospital tents or metro stations.
“We are still in the early stages of developing this solution but also see a number of existing mobile robotics providers who have implemented this technology specifically for hospitals,” Boston Dynamics said.