Robots are increasingly finding use in all walks of life and are making monotonous tasks simpler. A robot works tirelessly and is always precise and accurate. Hospitals require a constant delivery of medicines, food, meal trays and patient records, tasks that one could consider being made easier with the use of automated systems to help this process.
Conventionally, these activities are quite uncoordinated and redundant. A hospital transport robot is expected to navigate in a very similar manner to a human and to be able to handle unexpected obstacles and uncertainty.
Making Autonomous Delivery Robots
J Evans et al (1992) have discussed research on Handling Real-World Motion Planning: A Hospital Transport Robot known as HelpMate. The components of HelpMate will give us an idea of the components of a delivery robot.
HelpMate perceives the hospital environment as a group of predefined stations that are connected by a network of elevator lobbies, hallways and elevators. For instance, for a meal tray delivery application, the station set will be various nursing units and the dietary center.
In order to travel to a specific station, the robot may have to use an elevator. An elevator control computer is provided that helps the robot communicate through an infrared transceiver.
The drive subsystem has two autonomously controlled drive wheels with the common axis centered on the robot. A spring suspension ensures that the drive wheels remain in contact with the floor even if it is rough or bumpy and four corner casters offer stability.
The HelpMate is provided with structured and ultrasound light range sensing. This sensing continuously offers a set of range values. These sensors are used for the detection of obstacles and identification of walls helping to determine the orientation and location of the robot.
Ultrasound sensors are also provided at the sides of the robot to offer sufficient information about an obstacle and help in avoiding the same.
Touch sensitive bumpers are also provided at the front and back of HelpMate that may be undetected by the range sensors. An LCD and a keypad act as the user interface. Turn signals and warning lights appear when the HelpMate robot not on the right path.
The HelpMate is provided with a locked backpack for carrying meal trays and lab supplies. An offline CAD system tailored for HelpMate applications generates topographical and geometrical information about the elevator lobbies, hospital hallways, elevators and stations.
The CAD system also inputs specialized data such as speed-restricted hallways, travel-restricted hallways, pre-specified station lists for rounds and station arrival announcements. This CAD data is converted to a data structure called the topography knowledge base (TKB). During installation the TKB is loaded into HelpMate.
How it Works
The robot receives instructions through a human–machine interface. An installed knowledge base helps the robot to maneuver around the hospital. The robot is equipped to climb stairs, detect obstacles, move in lifts and call for opening or shutting doors.
The robot is loaded with supplies, given specific instructions through the human–machine interface and then it goes to its destination. It offloads the supplies, takes back anything else and moves on.
Advantages of Automated Delivery Robots
The key benefits of automated delivery robots in hospitals are:
- Medicines are delivered with a higher accountability via an integrated chain of custody systems
- Automated delivery enables pharmacy technicians to focus on performing high-value tasks such as mixing IVs without committing any mistake.
- Delivery of medicines can be more frequent and nurses can concentrate on caring for patients rather than worry about missing medicines and supplies.
- Automated delivery brings down costs and improves on-time reliability.
- Waste can be collected more frequently, improving control of infection and maintaining a neat appearance in the facility.
- Automated waste transport brings down the risk of injuries from the transport of heavy loads.
- Lab test items can be delivered immediately, hence speeding the testing process.
- Some of these systems have call functionality to deliver to departments behind locked doors.
- Accurate tracking of high-priced equipment and supplies ensure that the number of lost items is decreased.
Products on the Market - Advancements
The Tug system by Aethon
The automated Tug system from Aethon is a great benefit to the hospital industry. By using the TUG, clinicians can focus on patients as well as other tasks to complete high-value activities; whereas, the robot can handle all delivery tasks.
The TUG is designed to safely move through elevators, hospital corridors and departments to move items from point A to point B. It is on the move, round the clock, seven days a week making both on-demand and scheduled deliveries and never deters from its mission.
The size or magnitude of the order does not matter to TUG, it delivers on time whatever it is instructed to. The TUG system attaches to and transports a wide range of hospital carts and can be used for any application and be attached to several carts such as dietary, waste, linen and medical supplies.
One TUG, working for just two shifts seven days per week works hours that amount to the equivalent of 2.8 full-time workers, but costs less than one full-time employee so for an economical perspective, this robot clearly has a distinct advantage.
MedEx Advanced Tracking and Delivery Solutions
MedEx from Aethon is a sophisticated tracking and monitoring system by which a hospital is informed the real time status of any supply delivery or any type of medication.
The convenient web-based program makes sure that an item has reached its final destination and was stored properly bringing down costs with regards to missing medicines and supplies and enhancing patient safety.
Application of the Aethon robot. Video courtesy of Aethon Robotics
The advantages of this system are:
- The time wasted in tracking and refilling missing doses is eliminated.
- It is possible to track medications for their units without calling the pharmacy.
- The system makes it easier to track throughput and staff productivity.
- The pharmacy is notified when any order is behind schedule through an alert center.
QC Bot from Vecna
QC Bot from Vecna is a telepresence, hospital courier and patient self service robot.
This QC Bot moves through hospital facilities with the help of advanced machine vision and computer learning technology. Unlike line-following robots and pneumatic tube systems, there is no need to modify the hospital infrastructure. The sophisticated guidance system of the robot implies less maintenance, less setup time and robust navigation through indoor and outdoor hospital campuses.
The robot allows secure material transport and delivery of materials, medications and meals. Medical telepresence including videoconferencing is enabled. Mobile patient self-service is also possible.