For the past eight months, Boston Dynamics has been trying to find ways in which their friendly yellow quadruped, Spot, can provide some kind of useful response to COVID-19. The company has been working with researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts to use Spot as a telepresence-based extension for healthcare workers in suitable contexts, with the goal of minimizing exposure and preserving supplies of PPE.
For triaging sick patients, it’s necessary to collect a variety of vital data, including body temperature, respiration rate, pulse rate, and oxygen saturation. Boston Dynamics has helped to develop “a set of contactless monitoring systems for measuring vital signs and a tablet computer to enable face-to-face medical interviewing,” all of which fits neatly on Spot’s back. This system was recently tested in a medical tent for COVID-19 triage, which appeared to be a well constrained and very flat environment that left us wondering whether a legged platform like Spot was really necessary in this particular application. What makes Spot unique (and relatively complex and expensive) is its ability to navigate around complex environments in an agile manner. But in a tent in a hospital parking lot, are you really getting your US $75k worth out of those legs, or would a wheeled platform do almost as well while being significantly simpler and more affordable?
As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones who wondered whether Spot is really the best platform for this application. “We had the same response when we started getting pitched these opportunities in Feb / March,” Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’ VP of business development commented on Twitter. “As triage tents started popping up in late March, though, there wasn’t confidence wheeled robots would be able to handle arbitrary triage environments (parking lots, lawns, etc).”
To better understand Spot’s value in this role, we sent Boston Dynamics a few questions about their approach to healthcare robots.