One of the biggest challenges with preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is maintaining proper social distancing, but that can be especially difficult in hospital settings. Medical workers regularly put themselves at risk to treat the sick, but with so many cases and an overtaxed healthcare system, the risks are becoming much larger during the pandemic.. With so many patients arriving at hospitals, many medical institutions are asking patients to wait outside, often in tent installations, to have their temperatures checked and be tested for COVID-19 before being admitted. The process is arduous, repetitive, and requires doctors to expose themselves to hundreds of patients who may or may not have COVID-19. Famed robotics startup Boston Dynamics is offering a solution and, unsurprisingly, it involves robots.
At Brigham And Women’s Hospital of Harvard University in Boston, doctors are using Boston Dynamics Spot robots to assess patients from afar. The little bots have spent the past few years filling the internet with amazing, and slightly terrifying, videos and demonstrations. For example, above is a video of several Spots pulling a fully loaded Boston Dynamics truck. This truck is in neutral gear, the Spots are just that strong. Unfortunately, there is not much need in the world for robotic sled dogs. There is a need, however, for remote medicine, which is why Spots are now being used as vehicles for doctors to communicate with patients from afar. Practitioners at Brigham and Women’s are attaching iPads to Spots and treating people via Facetime. Right now the robots are only being employed at one hospital, but with the pandemic showing no signs of ending in the near future, they may soon be found at doctor’s offices all over the country. In a statement, Boston Dynamics said that, “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.”
Using Spots also allows doctors to effectively be in several places at once. Medical staff could even treat patients from their homes, piloting and switching between several robots on site with the click of a button. Even when the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close, Boston Dynamics robots may still have a bright future in the medical industry. In the future, Spot could be armed with infrared thermometers to take patient temperatures just by looking at them. Boston Dynamics has also raised the possibility of deploying swarms of Spots with UV emitters in their face ports to disinfect public transport. All of these possibilities are interesting, but also somewhat terrifying. As cool as the Spots are they are also completely, surreally, inhuman. To treat patients in the long term doctors would likely need to pilot more human bots like the Boston Dynamics Atlas. The Atlas robots are less versatile than the Spot but far more impressive. In the video above the Atlas performs parkour for the fun of it, but such behavior likely would not be needed in a medical setting. More likely doctors would install iPads to the Atlas’ heads and make contact with patients that way. Either way, the medical industry may have a surprisingly robotic future.