Special Deliveries: Autonomous Robots on a Roll in Health Care

By David Ollier Weber
December 4, 2017

The future is now. These technological assistants are saving time and money for hospitals and other medical ventures. 

Walk up to the reception desk at AZ Damiaan Hospital in Ostend, Belgium, or CHR Citadelle Hospital in Liège, and you’ll be greeted by a shiny, 3-foot-tall white-plastic robot with big, round, liquescent, sympathetically blinking black eyes, a neck that swivels, arms and hands that gesture expressively, the ability to read and respond to human emotions — and conversational fluency in 19 languages.

Looking something like a cross between ET and a Japanese manga character, the receptionist robot — which goes by the name Pepper — rolls on a wheeled base. If asked, it can accompany you through the hospital to the floor and room you’re seeking (chatting while carefully dodging traffic) at an easy-to-keep-pace of just less than 2 mph.

robot pepper

Say hello to Pepper, a “humanoid social” robot with health care applications that was developed by Zora Bots. Smaller Zora robots are already leading movement sessions in about 200 nursing homes. | Zora Bots

Pepper is part of a line of “humanoid social” robots developed with health care applications in mind by a Belgian company, Zora Bots. Smaller Zora robots — with fully articulated bodies and legs, resembling slightly outsized children’s Transformers toys —are already at work in several Belgian hospital pediatric departments conducting exercise and rehab classes. Popular with young patients, they equally delight elderly residents taking part in Zora-led movement sessions in about 200 nursing homes worldwide, the company said.

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Priced at 30,000 euros, or about $34,000, Peppers don’t come cheap. But they’re inhumanly multilingual, can work 20 hours straight without breaks or a battery recharge, and they don’t demand benefits. And routine tasks like answering questions, giving directions and leading visitors from Point A to Point B — thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning — are easy for a 21st century robot.

So is shuttling supplies through the maze of corridors at an 800,000-square-foot facility like the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay. Chockablock with technology —  including pharmacy robots that dispense all medications — the hospital, which opened in early 2015, employs more than two dozen autonomous mobile robotic carriers to transport meds, lab specimens, sterile operating room supplies, linens, trash, medical waste, patient meals and backbreaking loads of up to 1,000 pounds.

Aetheon, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based manufacturer, says its robots, known as TUGs, cut the cost per delivery by 50 percent when compared with human labor.

robot starship

Robots made by Starship Technologies are making deliveries of medications, groceries and supplies to patients who’ve been discharged from hospitals in Switzerland. | Starship Technologies

TUGs can be summoned from their docking stations by mobile devices or touch screens via in-hospital Wi-Fi. They trundle through the hallways using internal maps and an array of lasers, sonar and infrared sensors to detect and avoid obstacles.

“Please stand aside,” the robots politely warn as they approach people. “Thank you.”

 TUGs open doors, call elevators and excuse themselves to wait for the next one if the car is too crowded. More than 400 are pulling their weight at 140 hospitals nationwide, according to Aetheon, which was recently acquired by Singapore-based ST Engineering.

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Robots are also making deliveries of medications, groceries and supplies to patients who’ve been discharged from hospitals to their homes in Switzerland. In late 2016, Swiss Post, the national postal service, introduced robotic home prescription and parcel delivery on an experimental basis in three cities.

These robots look like little six-wheeled tramcars, with a radio antenna to communicate to base and a cargo lockbox that can be opened only by the intended recipient. Made by Starship Technologies,  a United Kingdom startup launched by two Estonian co-founders of Skype, the “delivery bots” negotiate busy streets and sidewalks while covering a 2-mile radius.

According to the company, the robots have been tested in more than a dozen countries, including the United States, in partnership with companies such as Domino’s Pizza and Just Eat.

Topics: Technology

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