Coronavirus

How Boston Dynamics’s doglike robot is helping a local hospital respond to the coronavirus

"We’re listening to their feedback on how Spot can do more."

The Boston Dynamics robot Spot, mounted with an iPad for doctors to video conference with patients, is pictured in the Waltham-based company's lab. Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics has experimented with a multitude of uses for their four-legged robots, from inspecting oil rigs to assisting police in potentially dangerous environments.

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And now they’re helping health care workers in the midst of another hazardous situation: the coronavirus pandemic.

Early last month, Boston Dynamics says it began receiving inquiries from hospitals asking if the robots could help minimize their staff’s exposure to COVID-19. Due to the disease’s highly infectious nature and the ongoing shortage in personal protective equipment, many frontline health care workers interacting with patients are at extreme risk of contracting the coronavirus themselves.

One hospital told Boston Dynamics that a sixth of their staff had contracted COVID-19; anything that would reduce the amount of time that workers are in close contact with contagious patients would help. So far, the Waltham-based company has found at least one coronavirus-related use for their doglike robot Spot — and they’re hoping for more.

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For the last week, Spot has been deployed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where the robot is being used as a “mobile telemedicine platform.” In other words, Boston Dynamics has mounted an iPad on its back so that Brigham and Women’s staff can remotely video conference with patients in the testing tents outside the hospital, where potentially infected individuals are triaged for testing.

The process typically takes up to five employees. With Spot, the hospital is able to reduce their staff’s exposure to the disease and conserve PPE. After all, robots don’t need to wear a mask.

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“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,” Boston Dynamics wrote in a blog post Thursday.

The company is also testing other potential coronavirus applications for Spot — and sharing their work for other robotics and health care professionals to leverage.

“While the work compiled here focuses on Boston Dynamics and its quadruped robot Spot, the findings here can easily be adapted to other robotic platforms, including wheeled and tracked robots,” the company wrote in a document outlining their progress.

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Boston Dynamics says it has also created a prototype allowing Spot to measure a patient’s body temperature and breathing rate using an infrared camera. They’re also designing technology so that a semiautonomous robot could disinfect empty hospital rooms using an ultraviolet light that can kill virus particles.

The company has prototyped simpler applications, such as mounting a tray and radio on Spot so it can deliver food, medicine, and other supplies to patients in isolation.

“We hope our fellow mobile robot providers, existing customers, and medical professionals will be able to use this information to leverage mobile robots to take people out of harm’s way during this critical time,” Boston Dynamics wrote Thursday. “Together, we can improve conditions for healthcare workers and essential personnel around the world, save lives, and fight COVID-19.”

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