Mobile robots aren't science fiction any more

Mobile robots aren't science fiction any more

Robots have turned a corner -- mobile robots used in commercial settings, that is.

"They went from being a hobby to being the real deal about 18 months ago," said Tony Diodato, co-founder of Cypress Computer Systems. "I believe the robot business will overwhelm our current business [selling building access controls] within the next year."

"In the past, people started with robots and then looked for a problem, but now they are starting with real problems and arriving at robot solutions," added Rob Stevens, vice president at Kiva Systems, a maker of warehouse robots. "We have seen that shift in just the last couple of years."

This market change has even been evident among users. "Those employees who were most vocal about saying they were able to walk faster than the robots are now the robots' biggest supporters and are always trying to find new ways to use them," said Doug Keeney, director of materials management at FirstHealth of the Carolinas' Moore Regional Hospital, a 385-bed facility. "They're spending more time doing inventory or helping patients than walking the halls."

Technology convergence

Basically, campuswide Wi-Fi systems, inexpensive mobile computers, inexpensive sensors and mature software demonstrate that in the past couple of years, mobile robots have ceased being science-fair projects and have become commercial products. Just don't expect them to look, walk and talk like C3PO in the Star Wars movies -- rolling and beeping like R2D2 is more like it.

The FirstHealth robot system is based on the TUG delivery robot from Aethon. Peter Seiff, vice president at Aethon, said that the TUG uses dual off-the-shelf infrared and ultrasonic sensors, navigating by a custom map derived from a computer-aided design (CAD) map of the facility.

TUGs can be summoned through the facility's wireless network and interact with the elevator controls through wireless custom interfaces. They lease for about US$1,500 per month, and Aethon has about 200 in use, he said.

If a TUG encounters an obstacle, the robot can go around it or plot another path. If it's stuck, it can use an onboard camera to take a picture of the situation and send it to the Aethon help desk in Pittsburgh. The agents there can remotely pilot it out of the situation or tell it to be patient, Seiff noted.

"The help desk is considered part of the product and is for the 1% of the time that the robot can't handle the situation -- and is better than adding millions [of dollars] worth of additional sensors," Seiff said.

At FirstHealth, the hospital's six TUGs have used the help desk about 25 times in two years, recalled David Dillehunt, vice president and CIO. The hospital originally acquired two TUGs two years ago to deliver locked medicine boxes to the nursing units.

"The pharmacy had four full-time staff equivalents performing courier functions, and [with robots], we were able to eliminate those positions," he recalled. "Once we realized that we could do that without disrupting service, we started looking for other opportunities to use the technology." FirstHealth has since added another pharmacy TUG and two more that deliver other supplies, and the hospital is considering using them to deliver food trays and lab specimens, he said.

RFID allows inventory double-duty

An additional benefit, Dillehunt added, is that Aethon was able to add radio-frequency identification antennas to the robots, so they can take inventory as they travel, recording the responses of medical devices that carry RFID labels. Because there are areas that the delivery robots never enter, a sixth unit has been programmed to patrol the rest of the facility.

Sometimes, less automation is better. Dillehunt said that the robots were originally programmed to call ahead to the powered doors that secured various areas, such as the pharmacy, so that the door would open up and let the robot through.

"We observed that someone would be able to tag along and walk through with the robot and break security," he recalled. "So we reprogrammed them to stand outside the door and call inside for someone to open it."

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