Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot is helping treat COVID-19 patients

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Boston Dynamics' Spot robot is helping treat COVID-19 patients.
Image: Boston Dynamics

When it comes to risky workplace environments, robots are a great way to keep human employees safe. Healthcare settings are certainly high-risk at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors, nurses, and support staff are putting their health and safety on the line to provide care for patients stricken with COVID-19.

However, companies around the world are coming up with creative solutions that use robots to limit human exposure to the virus. One of these is Boston Dynamics. Well-known for its highly advanced robots, the firm is making huge strides in robotics-based telemedicine. It is currently using its four-legged Spot robot to help with the treatment of COVID-19 patients in a Boston hospital.

Robo-Triage

On Thursday, Boston Dynamics announced that it has been working on a new system that allows Spot to reduce the exposure of frontline healthcare workers to the virus. Throughout the past six weeks, it has developed a system that allows the quadruped robot to aid hospitals.

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It also revealed that Spot has been working in a Boston-area hospital for two weeks. The trial is allowing Boston Dynamics to work out any kinks in the system before deploying Spot in a widespread manner.

A company press release says, “Today marks the second week of Spot’s presence at a local Boston hospital, Brigham and Women’s (BWH), where the robot is being deployed as a mobile telemedicine platform, enabling healthcare providers to remotely triage patients.”

It adds, “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.”

Spot is equipped with a custom mount and enclosure that houses an iPad or tablet. This allows healthcare workers to safely approach and triage a patient without putting themselves in harm’s way. The robot also carries a two-way radio and transmits a live feed of a practitioner in real-time so the patient doesn’t feel as isolated.

Limiting Exposure

Unlike some other robotics solutions, the Boston Dynamics system isn’t meant to increase efficiency. If anything, using a robot to triage patients via videoconference might actually slow the process down.

Right now, though, speed isn’t everything. It’s more important to keep frontline healthcare workers healthy so they can continue to treat patients. The firm claims that using Spot on a shift allows at least one worker to decrease their risk of exposure to a COVID-19-positive patient.

“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,” the press release states. “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.”

Open Sourcing

Using Spot to protect healthcare workers in one location is great. However, a wider rollout is necessary for the system to make a significant difference.

That’s exactly what Boston Dynamics envisions. To aid hospitals in the fight against COVID-19, the firm is releasing the files that make the Spot setup run. That’s an impressive move considering that much of the company’s work is highly classified since it leads the industry.

It says, “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.”

It’s worth noting that this means the setup doesn’t actually rely on Boston Dynamics hardware. Healthcare organizations will be able to tweak and customize their robotic triage assistants however they see fit. This includes changing up the format and putting the robot on wheels or a tank-like tread.

Future Uses

Moving forward, Boston Dynamics has its eyes on bigger and better things for the Spot application. The company is already working on a system that would allow its robot to perform more “hands-on” triage tasks beyond simple interviews.

For instance, the team wants to equip Spot with thermal cameras that would allow it to measure body temperatures and the patient’s respiratory rate. Since a fever is a key symptom of COVID-19, this would be a useful addition. Moreover, Boston Dynamics is looking into the possibility of adding an externally-mounted RGB camera. That hardware would let Spot monitor blood vessel contraction to determine pulse rate—like the sensors on a smartwatch. The team is also trying to find a way to measure oxygen saturation.

Assessments aren’t all that Spot will do in the future, however. Boston Dynamics notes that healthcare facilities could use the robot as a disinfecting tool. Mounting a UV-C light on the robot’s back would allow it to kill virus particles and disinfect surfaces.

Using UV light to clean hospital rooms isn’t a new concept. However, the bulky machines currently in use wouldn’t fare well in a triage tent set up in the parking lot. Spot, by contrast, is extremely mobile. It could roam around a triage area to continuously disinfect surfaces when not in use.

Robots in Healthcare

Boston Dynamics isn’t the only company working on robotic healthcare applications. Indeed, as the robotics field continues to grow and evolve, more healthcare uses are appearing than ever before.

An artificial intelligence (AI) powered robot developed by Rutgers is able to perform venipuncture procedures autonomously. Bright Machines has developed a robot that works in the lab to analyze COVID-19 tests without putting humans at risk.

Meanwhile, surgical robots are able to manipulate some of the body’s smallest blood vessels with more success than human surgeons.

Combining the worlds of healthcare and robotics is better for patients and workers. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s especially true. Thanks to the Spot system from Boston Dynamics, frontline workers will soon be at less risk of exposure to the coronavirus in triage settings so that they can continue providing care.

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