ZINI
Mark Genito  /  AP
Aldo Zini, CEO and President of Aethon, shows off his robotic helper named Tug at Magee-Womans Hospital in Pittsburgh. Tug is a self-guided robot that transports medical supplies in hospitals.
updated 7/6/2004 12:58:03 PM ET 2004-07-06T16:58:03

Near a pair of swinging doors at a local hospital, a cart sits apparently abandoned. Yet at the push of a button, it perks up to say, “thank you” and rolls itself out the door toward the pharmacy.

The 50-pound machine, which looks like a vacuum cleaner mated to a cabinet, is designed to autonomously ferry loads of linens, medical supplies, X-rays, food and other materials.

In a push to lower costs and free up workers for more critical tasks, hospital officials are turning more and more to robots like Tug to ply their hallways.

Other robots include the RoboCart — a motorized table — and the droid-like HelpMate, a four-foot tall cabinet with flashing lights and turn signals that would be welcome in any sci-fi movie.

It’s unclear how many automated courier robots are being used in the nation’s hospitals. There may be six dozen to about 120, according to experts and a small number of private U.S. companies making the robots.

The Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston has been using two HelpMates to cart medicine from the pharmacy to nursing stations throughout the six-floor, 352-bed hospital. They make as many as 30 trips a day, said Susan Dierker, a nursing supervisor.

“They’re wonderful and they talk to you in Spanish and English. The nursing staff is pleased with them and most people just stare because they’re wandering around the hospital,” Dierker said.

'Seeing' with sensors
The TUG, made by Pittsburgh-based Aethon, and the HelpMate, made by Ohio-based Cardinal Health, are more advanced than the RoboCart, made by California Computer Research Inc.

The RoboCart has a fixed path determined by tape placed in a hallway and has sonar to help it avoid smacking into a person or object in its path. It mostly ferries blood samples from one end of a laboratory to another.

On the other hand, the TUG and HelpMate are packed with sensors to help them “see.” The TUG can tell the difference between a person standing in its way and a bag placed in a hallway.

They use wireless radios to call elevators or open automatic doors. Their “brains” are packed with detailed maps of hospitals and computer programs to help them keep track of where they are, where they’re going and the right time to jump on an elevator.

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They’re also polite. The TUG asks people to “please stand aside,” when it gets onto an elevator and says “thank you” after it makes a delivery. The HelpMate asks people, “please examine my contents,” when it makes a delivery.

While it may seem ill-advised for a machine — even a smart one — to tote around drugs or medical records unsupervised, the TUG and HelpMate come with cabinets that can be mechanically and electronically locked. The HelpMate includes a fingerprint scanner for extra security.

They aren’t problem-free, however. On a recent run in the University of Pittsburgh’s Magee Women’s Hospital, a TUG en route from the pharmacy to another floor went silent and idle for several minutes while waiting for an elevator.

The robot’s behavior baffled Aethon President Aldo Zini, but after a call to headquarters, he figured it out. The TUG was being too cautious. It won’t get on an elevator if a button is pushed — an indication someone else is on the elevator — or if the elevator is heavy, perhaps full with carts or beds.

There were other oddities. Later in its run, the TUG crawled inches away from a wall, apparently trying to avoid two scraps of paper on the floor.

“We’re sensitive to the fact that it is running through a hospital and it can’t hit anything. I can sleep 100 percent at night knowing it hasn’t hit anything,” Zini said.

Struggling for acceptance
Robotic couriers have struggled to get widespread acceptance in hospitals, largely because they have been viewed as toys rather than tools.

Even so, Montefiore Medical Center in New York City has used a HelpMate for about five years and, in May, Aethon, which has five TUGs running in hospitals, won a federal contract to sell its robots to Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide.

Other hospitals could soon turn to self-guided robots to counteract financial and staffing shortages.

According to a May report from the American Hospital Association, 110,000 nursing jobs went unfilled as of January and a third of the nation’s hospitals lost money.

A 2000 study by Manuel Rosetti, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Arkansas, found that the University of Virginia Hospital could save as much as $218,000 a year if it replaced 15 human couriers with six HelpMate robots, which would pay for themselves in little over three years.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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