Hospital Robots [Mechanical engineering]

Hospital Robots

This Incredible Hospital Robot Is Saving Lives

GG3A0440The robot, I’m told, is on its way. Any minute now you’ll see it. We can track them, you know. There’s quite a few of them, so it’s only a matter of time. Any minute now.

Ah, and here it is.

Far down the hospital hall, double doors part to reveal the automaton. There’s no dramatic fog or lighting—which I jot down as “disappointing”—only a white, rectangular machine about four feet tall. It waits for the doors to fully part, then cautiously begins to roll toward us, going about as fast as a casual walk, emitting a soft beep every so often to let the humans around it know it’s on a very important quest. It’s not traveling on a track. It’s unleashed. It’s free.

The robot, known as a Tug, edges closer and closer to me at the elbow of the L-shaped corridor and stops. It turns its wheels before accelerating through the turn, then suddenly halts once again.GG3A0420 Josh, the photographer I’d brought along, is blocking its path, and by way of its sensors, the robot knows it. Tug, it seems, is programmed to avoid breaking knees.

This hospital—the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing—had opened four days before our visit. From the start, a fleet of Tugs has been shuffling around the halls. They deliver drugs and clean linens and meals while carting away medical waste and soiled sheets and trash.GG3A0560 And by the time the fleet spins up to 25 robots on March 1, it’ll be the largest swarm of Tug medical automatons in the world, with each robot traveling an admirable average of 12 miles a day.

The whole circus is, in a word, bewildering. The staff still seems unsure what to make of Tug. Reactions I witness range from daaawing over its cuteness (the gentle bleeping, the slow-going, the politeness of stopping before pancaking people) to an unconvincingly restrained horror that the machines had suddenly become sentient. I grew up in Silicon Valley and write for WIRED and even I’m confused about it. The whole thing is just weird.

GG3A0495It’s really weird. And I’m not sure I like it much.

Roll, Roll, Roll Your Scary-Intelligent Medical Robot

The Tug that’d emerged without so much as smoke or pyrotechnics had come from the kitchen, where the exhaust system hums worryingly loud and a man hands out hairnets and even a beardnet to Josh, who finds this more amusing than inconvenient. Dan Henroid, the hospital’s director of nutrition and food services, has brought me to a wall where Tugs are lined up charging in their docking stations, save for one robot out doing the rounds.

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