The company has ambitious plans for using robots to assist COVID-19 treatmen
Robot maker Boston Dynamics announced on Thursday that its quadruped Spot robot is already in use at one Boston hospital to help with coronavirus treatment. The company now has ambitious plans to expand use of its robots to assist healthcare workers during the pandemic, and it’s also open sourcing the hardware and software it’s using so other hospitals and robot makers may be able to do follow its lead.
The hospital, Brigham And Women’s Hospital of Harvard University, has been using a Spot unit since last week for remote triage of patients suspected of having COVID-19. Right now, Boston Dynamics, which was formerly owned by Google and is now owned by Japanese communications giant SoftBank, is deploying Spot as telemedicine machine. It’s using a custom mount and enclosure for an iPad or similar-sized screen to be used for video conferencing between doctors and other healthcare workers and their patients.
“Today marks the second week of Spot’s presence at a local Boston hospital, Brigham and Women’s, where the robot is being deployed as a mobile telemedicine platform, enabling healthcare providers to remotely triage patients,” the company says in a statement. “We’re listening to their feedback on how Spot can do more but are encouraged by their reports that using the robot has helped their nursing staff minimize time exposed to potentially contagious patients.”
Telemedicine, in the context of the coronavirus, is about reducing contact between healthcare workers and those who may transmit COVID-19. The general concept is simple: by reducing the exposure of healthcare workers by using robots and other means of remote communication, you can keep those best equipped to combat the pandemic safe and ensure they can continue to perform that important work. In this particular case, the Spot robot is carrying an iPad, as well as a two-way radio, and transmitting a live feed of a doctor in real time.
“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,” Boston Dynamics explains. “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.”
But using the iPad and two-way radio means doctors “are able to speak with patients from afar, possibly even their own homes.” For every shift a Spot robot takes, Boston Dynamics says, at least one healthcare worker is able to reduce their potential interaction with a COVID-positive patient.
To better assist other healthcare workers and those companies in the position to provide robotic or telemedicine support, Boston Dynamics is releasing all the files that make its current Spot setup function.
“With the deployment of our first healthcare-focused robot, we’re open-sourcing all of our work to empower any mobile robotics platform to leverage the same hardware and software stack that we’ve developed to help frontline healthcare workers,” the company says. “None of the services… are reliant on Boston Dynamics hardware or software. In many instances, we imagine wheeled or tracked robots may be a better solution for these applications.”
Boston Dynamics says it’s not intending to stop at telemedicine. Instead, the company is looking into ways to make its Spot robots even more vital assets in the fight against COVID-19. The company is now actively looking into remote vital inspection, so that Spot robots can perform tasks like temperature checks and respiratory rate calculation using thermal camera technology. “
We’ve also applied externally-developed logic to externally-mounted RGB cameras to capture change sin blood vessel contraction to measure pulse rate,” the company says. “We are evaluating methods for measuring oxygen saturation.”
Further down the line, the company is looking into whether its Spot robots may become tools for disinfection of areas like public transit hubs and hospital areas or coronavirus triage tents using ultraviolet light. While this has been done before — and as recently as last month for fighting the coronavirus in some China hospitals using machines from Danish company UVD Robots — doing so at the scale necessary to combat COVID-19 in public spaces would be unprecedented. Boston Dynamics says it’s still a ways away from figuring out how to best try this.
“By attaching a UV-C light 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,” the company says. “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.