And even more remarkable, the patients did not panic and noping at home. “This may be due in part to the fact that we are in this strange world of Covid, where it looks like almost everything,” said Dr. Peter Chai, of the hospital’s emergency medicine department. “I think everyone, at least at this point, is starting to understand that we are trying to limit exposure. “
Boston Dynamics officials will be the first to tell you that they are not 100% sure what Spot will be good at. The company only started renting the machine at the end of last year and is relying in part on its customers to experiment with the tasks Spot can do well. Surveying construction sites and performing safety details tops the list. But working in a hospital comes with a vast and unique set of challenges.
One is to determine to what extent Spot is limited by its hardware. The promise of robots in the era of the new coronavirus is that they are theoretically the ideal health professionals. They don’t get sick, they don’t need breaks, and they can do menial tasks like delivering supplies. All of this would free up real doctors and nurses to care for the patients. But in 2020, medical robots are still a bit rude. They need human help if they get stuck in a hallway, for example.
What makes Spot special is its famous skillful footwork. A wheeled robot may find it difficult to navigate the tent in which it sorts Covid-19 patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Instead, an operator can control Spot remotely via patient lines, talking about their symptoms without worrying that the robot will hit sensitive people or equipment. (The robot uses cameras around its body to automatically avoid obstructions.)
Yet, at this point, there is little that Spot can do to help in the yard tent. Boston Dynamics engineers hope that at some point they will be able to use a thermal imaging camera to measure the temperature of patients. Another idea is to attach a UV lamp to its back to disinfect hospital rooms. But that’s another hardware limitation: it takes a lot of energy, which will quickly drain Spot’s battery. Is this compromise worth it? “These are the types of design questions we ask healthcare professionals, about what they would actually use in the field, before we start building a new design here,” said Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics.
The company operates this work in open source so that other roboticists can deploy it using their own devices. (It’s not the underlying Spot code for how it travels in hospitals, you think. More like the code for Spot sensors that can help other machines remotely interrogate patients. ) “The broader goal we have is that Spot might not be the right one, but the tools we have developed for this application are generalizable and could be used with any other mobile robot,” says Perry.
Take it from Boston Dynamics: Their experiences with Spot in real-life tasks have shown that you can’t just deploy a robot to do any old task. The company has asked customers, for example, to deploy the robot for surveillance, but it’s sometimes a job that a simple security camera can handle. And you need to be especially careful in an environment as sensitive as a hospital. For one thing, just because a robot can’t get sick doesn’t mean it can’t fall other sick. You must periodically disinfect its surfaces. And remember that it also breathes: fans of a robot could explode the virus, just like our own human sneezes.