Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), together with robotics company Boston Dynamics, have deployed a four-legged mobile robot in a hospital to join in the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Spot, built from the Boston Dynamics' flagship quadruped mobile robot, is now capable of providing triage for hospital patients - making it the newest frontline member in the ongoing effort against the highly contagious disease.

Dr. Spot
(Photo: Giovanni Traverso YouTube Channel)

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The (Robot) Doctor Is In

Teaming up with Boston Dynamics, MIT, and Brigham and Women's hospital created Dr. Spot. In an article from the New York Post, a principal roboticist from Boston Dynamics, Marco da Silva explains that it takes a few months to build a robot. He adds that it took another six weeks to develop the payload for Dr. Spot, giving it the ability to perform various healthcare tasks.

Dr. Spot is fitted with various sensors that can measure vital signs, skin temperature, pulse and breathing rates, and even blood oxygen saturation. The mobile robot is also equipped with an iPad tablet that allows patients to talk with a medical professional without making in-person contact. Dr. Spot is controlled from a distance through a wireless handheld controller.

On its product website, the Massachusetts-based robotics company shares that Spot Explorer - the ready-to-operate, flexible robot - starts at $74,500.00, with additional customizations going for about $20,000.

While Dr. Spot delivers the kind of performance required of it in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how patients will respond to a mobile robot healthcare worker remains. 

"Often as engineers, we think about different solutions, but sometimes they may not be adopted because people are not fully accepting of them," Traverso said in an MIT news release.

Public Reception Towards Robot Healthcare Provider

The study that led to Dr. Spot was led by Giovanni Traverso, Peter Chai, Henwei Wang, and their colleagues from MIT, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Boston Dynamics. Researchers surveyed to assess patient reception towards getting medical attention from a mobile robot. In a study titled "Assessment of the Acceptability and Feasibility of Using Mobile Robotic Systems for Patient Evaluation," published on JAMA Network Open, researchers found that people are generally receptive to taking medical procedures from robots intended to analyze symptoms of COVID-19 in a contactless method.

"People are very positive and accepting of robotic systems in health-care settings, particularly during the pandemic," said Traverso, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering in MIT as well as a member of the gastroenterology division at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in an interview with the New York Post.

He explains that patients are even willing to allow mobile robot doctors like Dr. Spot to perform minor medical procedures on them: assessment of vital signs, inserting an intravenous catheter, or even performing a nasal swab.

In their national survey, about 1,000 participants answered questions on acceptability, observing that mobile robots are acceptable to be used in a variety of healthcare tasks among US respondents during COVID-19.

"We found that folks across the nation were willing to engage with robots, particularly systems that facilitate telehealth and systems that facilitate measuring vital signs like heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen levels," Traverso added.


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