Mobile robots aren't science fiction anymore

Just don't expect them to look, walk and talk like C-3PO in the Star Wars movies -- rolling and beeping like R2-D2 is more like it

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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."

Diodato at Cypress Computer also sells courier mobile robots, using base systems from MobileRobots Inc. in Amherst, N.H. Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of MobileRobots, said the advantage of her machines is that they can be led through the operational area and learn it themselves using remote sensing -- many buyers don't have CAD files of their buildings, she noted. Units that find themselves blocked have a variety of options, including politely asking the obstruction to step aside.

Computerworld's Joyce Carpenter recently visited MobileRobots Inc. and was met by a receptionist robot that escorted her to a meeting room and offered her refreshments. See video and photos.

Dietsch said she has sold about 3,000 robots in the past 12 years, and she expects commercial demand to double or triple this year. A basic robot starts at about $31,000 with its docking station and software.

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