As a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, Boston Dynamics today open-sourced its health care robotics toolkit on GitHub. The company hopes that existing Boston Dynamics customers and other mobile robot providers can use the toolkit, which includes documentation and CAD files of enclosures and mounts, to help health care workers and essential personnel and ultimately save lives. The mobile robot provider outlined four use cases for its toolkit: telemedicine (which it has already deployed), remote vitals inspection, disinfection, and delivery.
Boston Dynamics says that in early March hospitals started inquiring whether its robots could help minimize staff exposure to the novel coronavirus. (One hospital apparently shared that in a single week a sixth of its staff had contracted COVID-19.) The company spent weeks figuring out how its robot Spot, which is shipping to early adopters, can meet hospital requirements. The result is a four-legged robot that supports frontline staff responding to the pandemic “in ad-hoc environments, such as triage tents and parking lots.” In fact, a single Spot was deployed last week to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston as a mobile telemedicine platform to help health care providers remotely triage patients. There, it has helped nursing staff minimize exposure to potentially contagious patients.
The world is currently experiencing a global shortage of critical personal protective equipment (PPE), opening the door to autonomous technologies like drones and robots. Essential services are desperate for technology that can limit human contact, moving personnel and visitors out of infection range. As other businesses reopen, and arguably long after the pandemic is over, company leaders will be hungry for the same.
The telemedicine part was the lowest-hanging fruit, so that’s what Boston Dynamics pursued first at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The Spot robot features an iPad and a two-way radio for video conferencing. Health care providers remotely direct the mobile robot through lines of patients waiting outside the hospital to answer questions and get initial temperature assessments. Doctors can speak with patients from afar, possibly even from their own homes.
This process normally requires up to five medical staff, Boston Dynamics says. A mobile robot lets hospitals reduce the total number at the scene and conserve the hospital’s PPE supply. Every Spot shift reduces at least one health care provider’s exposure to the disease.
Vitals inspection, disinfection, and delivery
Boston Dynamics has also prototyped using Spot for remote vitals inspection to triage sick patients, for disinfection, and for various deliveries. For remote vital inspection, the company still needs to figure out how to support collecting additional vital sign information, including remotely measuring body temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate, and oxygen saturation. So far, Boston Dynamics has done the following:
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.
Additionally, Boston Dynamics wants the robots to disinfect hospital rooms and themselves. The company has also made some progress here:
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. 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.
We’ve left the most obvious use case for last. The robots can deliver food, medicine, masks, and other supplies to patients in isolation. To help, the company prototyped a 3D-printable tray for Spot. Again, this minimizes health worker exposure and PPE usage.
None of these services requires Boston Dynamics’ hardware or software, the company emphasized. “In many instances, we imagine wheeled or tracked robots may be a better solution for these applications,” the company said. That’s why it’s releasing its toolkit to the world.
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