Robots! To the nurses' station, stat

'Tug' and 'Homer' help with hospital deliveries

While deadly "Terminator"-style robots are making a comeback in one new television series, a more benign variety of the machines are delivering drugs and tracking medical equipment throughout a US hospital.

Called "Tug" and "Homer", the robots from Aethon are reducing costs at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in the US, said CIO Dave Dillehunt.

"Our motto is 'We care for people,' and robots are one way we do it," Dillehunt said.

Dillehunt estimates the hospital has already saved US$150,000 a year by using its five robots. In addition to making deliveries, the robots locate expensive medical equipment wirelessly with RFID tags, which means the hospital can reduce the supply of equipment on hand. He said the hospital was able to cut the number of infusion pumps by 250, down from 700, resulting in that US$150,000 annual savings.

In all, the robots have replaced four workers who made deliveries, but all four were trained for other jobs, he said. The robots first appeared in 2006, but RFID tracking started last summer. "There was staff concern initially, but [the robots have] actually freed up staff for other things," he said.

The robots move on wheels and navigate by dead reckoning and lasers, relying on a blueprint of hospital hallways in their memories to calculate turns and distances and the locations of elevators, said Barry Skirble, CIO at Aethon. Using a wireless network, they can even call for an elevator.

If a robot encounters an obstacle as it moves, it can communicate via the wireless network to its home base in the hospital and then via virtual private network to Aethon's help desk where workers can provide real-time navigation help, Skirble said.

Aethon relies on Cisco Systems networking, VPN and wireless products to support its robots. It has installed about 200 robots in 105 hospitals in the US. Each robot leases for about US$1,800 a month, including service, Skirble said.

While there's no attempt to make the robots appear human, they do have recorded voices that notify people in the hallways when they are crossing, which either confuses or delights visitors, Dillehunt said. "You'll see teenagers hopping in front of them and people talking back to them," he said.

Skirble said the robots are generally programmed with a woman's voice to include several standard warnings, but can be set up with any person's voice. The voice could be Frank Sinatra singing "My Way" or the hospital CIO's own voice, he said. "Nurses, who are mostly women, tend to want it to be a man's voice for some reason," he said.

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