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Have Robot, Will Travel Hospital Halls

Monday, July 9, 2007 - 15:48
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Next time you’re in a hospital, count the people pushing carts with medications, food and medical equipment. Then count the robots.

Providence Hospital in Washington D.C. has six, including Mattie, Manny and A La Carte. These aren’t Hollywood androids. Squat, the size of a small suitcase and wheeled, they sit under carts and pull them around the hospital unchaperoned. (See blue-rimmed robot in picture at right.) Aethon, which makes Providence’s automatons, says about 75 other hospitals are using them as well.

Wireless signals from the robots summon elevators and open hallway doors. An internal map and sensors let the so-called Tugs navigate by dead reckoning — they know where they are because they know how far they’ve gone. A camera spots obstacles, and a speaker politely asks people to move before the robot navigates around them.

By attaching radio tags to equipment, such as IV pumps and wheelchairs, hospitals can even turn Aethon’s Tugs into inventory clerks. As they prowl the halls, the robots detect what’s where, letting nurses and others zero in on equipment through the system’s computers.

Other companies offer similar gizmos. Swisslog’s TransCar is in about 40 hospitals and uses a laser-guidance system. But it doesn’t scoot around unexpected obstacles automatically, on the theory that it could cause more traffic jams than it solves. FMC Technologies advertises a bulkier robot that slides under hospital carts, a little like a low-rise forklift.

At Providence, Mattie and Manny deliver IV tubing, gauze and other supplies for Mark Todd, the hospital’s director of material management. Barista and A La Carte deliver patient meals and supplies for the lobby coffee shop. The lab and pharmacy each have one as well, to schlep medications and lab samples.

Aethon says it rents its the robots for about $1,500 a month. Todd figures he’s spending roughly $2.85 an hour for their services, a steal considering that he used to need the equivalent of four full-time positions to make sure someone was on the job around teh clock.

“The Tug doesn’t take breaks and doesn’t call in sick and doesn’t eat lunch,” Todd says. “I don’t have to worry about people getting married or flirting with each other.”

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