The Mayo Clinic today announced a partnership with Beep and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) to deploy autonomous shuttles that transport medical equipment and COVID-19 tests collected at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site. The hope is that they’ll expedite the delivery of much-needed supplies while reducing the risk of human exposure to the coronavirus.
On March 30, the Mayo Clinic says its branch in Florida began using four shuttles Navya shuttles to transport COVID-19 tests from the testing site to a processing laboratory on the hospital’s campus. (Beep transported three Naya shuttles from its fleet in Lake Nona, outside of Orlando, which JTA supplemented with an additional shuttle from an ongoing autonomous vehicle program.) COVID-19 test samples are stored in secure containers prior to Mayo Clinic staff loading the contents onto the shuttle, which then takes routes isolated from pedestrians and traffic while Mayo Clinic, Beep, and JTA personnel monitor them from a mobile command center. A human-driven SUV or truck follows behind each shuttle to ensure they remain on-route.
The partnership, while small in scope, is consistent with a global trend: Autonomous vehicles are being tapped by health care systems to deliver medical supplies in regions affected by COVID-19.
In China, startup Neolix says its vans have delivered medical supplies and supplemented labor shortages in areas hit hardest by COVID-19. In partnership with Apollo, Baidu’s autonomous vehicle platform, these vans have also delivered food to health workers in Beijing caring for those who have fallen ill.
Elsewhere, in mid-March, KiwiBot’s autonomous delivery robots began delivering sanitary supplies, masks, antibacterial gels, and hygiene products for the communities of Berkeley and Denver.
“Delivery robots add convenience and perceived safety without having to trust them with your life,” Amit Nisenbaum, CEO of Tactile Mobility, a provider of tactile data and sensing technologies that allow autonomous vehicles to detect road bumps, curvatures, and hazards, told VentureBeat in an earlier interview. “People understand in theory that [autonomous vehicles] will reduce the spread of infection by allowing for social distancing.”