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10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare

Dec 07, 2012 (04:12 AM EST)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=240143983


Robots aren't new to healthcare. Remember the da Vinci Surgical System, the surgical assistant the FDA approved back in 2000? Since then, the system has conducted more than 20,000 surgeries and has paved the way for robotic advancements in healthcare. In fact, vendors have introduced a number of new robots to better provide care to remote patients, help with various physical therapies and -- similar to the da Vinci system -- help perform surgery.

For example, Magnetic Microbots are a group of tiny robots used in various operations, such as removing plaque from a patient's arteries or helping with ocular conditions and disease screenings. Other robotic advancements are used to better the day-to-day lives of patients, helping them eat, like the Bestic Arm, or helping a patient regain her ability to walk, like many of Toyota's Healthcare Assistants.

"In the next few years, thousands of 'service robots' are expected to enter the healthcare sector -- picture R2-D2 from Star Wars carrying a tray of medications or a load of laundry down hospital corridors," according to a recent article from The Wall Street Journal. "Fewer than 1,000 of these blue-collar robots currently roam about hospitals, but those numbers are expected to grow quickly."

And that's no surprise considering the mounting financial difficulties the industry faces. Robots like the Aethon TUG can complete the work of three full-time employees, yet it "costs less than one full-time employee," according to the company. The TUG acts as a distribution system to move through hospital corridors, elevators and departments to make either scheduled or on-demand deliveries. Swisslog's RoboCourier, a similar delivery system, helps eliminate human work and completes tasks with the push of a button.

"This new robotic breed is boasting features increasingly found in smartphones, gaming consoles and other consumer electronics, from advanced sensors and motion detectors to powerful microprocessors and voice activation. The service robots are self-aware, intelligent and able to navigate changing environments, even chaotic hospital settings," according to the WSJ.

Outside the hospital setting, caregivers use robots to enhance telemedicine and care for those restricted to their homes. The Vasteras Giraff, for instance, is a two-way call system similar to Skype and is used by doctors to communicate with the elderly. A PC, camera and monitor control the robot.

Click through to see 10 medical robots that have the potential to transform healthcare.




The Vasteras Giraff is a mobile communication tool that enables the elderly to communicate with the outside world. It's remote controlled, and it has wheels, a camera and a monitor. Essentially, the Giraff is a robot that provides two-way video calling similar to Skype. A caregiver can control the robot using a typical PC. To date, 42 Giraff robots have been delivered to seven European countries, and 20 more were recently built. According to the company, each production run includes improvements based on "rigorous testing and feedback from end users."

Giraff Technologies, the company behind the Giraff, moved to Sweden in 2009. The country serves as a testing home base for the product. Since 2011, the robot has won a number of industry awards for innovation. The robot system is also part of an additional research project called GiraffPlus, which allows investigators to evaluate how the robot can be incorporated into a larger system for home care.

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The Aethon TUG is an automated system that allows a facility to move supplies such as medication, linens and food from one space to another. The robot moves through hospital corridors, elevators and departments at any time during the day to make either scheduled or on-demand deliveries. End users can attach the system to a variety of hospital carts to transport supplies and it can be employed for a variety of applications. According to the company, the system allows for increased productivity since it "doesn't get distracted while making a delivery, allowing it to accomplish more in less time."

Additionally, the robot offers "sound ROI," according to Aethon. In a 300-bed facility, for example, an estimated $4 million is spent annually on the task of pushing carts. According to the company, one TUG robot working two shifts every day of the week saves the labor of nearly three full-time employees, yet costs less than one full-time employee.

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Earlier in 2012, robotics firm iRobot built an emerging technologies group and announced a partnership with InTouch Health to put its AVA telepresence technology to better use. As a result, the two companies developed the Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant, or RP-VITA, which combines iRobot's AVA telepresence units with InTouch health's distance education tools, creating a system that allows physicians to care for patients remotely.

The system features mapping and obstacle detection, as well as avoidance technology and an iPad user interface for control and interaction. The robot can also interface with diagnostic devices and electronic medical records (EMR) systems. The remote rig will eventually be able to navigate to specified target destinations autonomously.

"While this represents our first foray into the healthcare market, the RP-VITA represents a robust platform," said Colin Angle, chairman and CEO of iRobot. "We see many future opportunities in adjacent markets."

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Bestic is a small robotic arm with a spoon on the end. The arm can be easily maneuvered, and a user can independently control the spoon's movement on a plate to choose what and when to eat. According to the company, the robot has a "unique design" that fits on tables and can also be adjusted for each user by choosing buttons, a joystick, a foot control or another control device they prefer.

Sten Hemmingsson, who needed an assistive device to eat, developed the Bestic arm. Based on his vision, the Bestic arm was created in partnership with mechanical engineer Ann-Louise Noren. The development project lasted about seven years, and Bestic is now a medical device that can be acquired privately or through prescription.

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Healthcare Robotics' Nursing Assistant uses a direct physical interface (DPI) that lets a nurse have direct control over the movement of the robot, a "human-scale" mobile manipulator called Cody. Using the DPI, the nurse is able to lead and position Cody by making direct contact with its "body." When the user grabs and moves either of the robot's end effectors -- or the black rubber balls attached to the robot -- Cody responds. For example, pulling forward or pushing backward make the robot do the same, and moving the end effector to the right or the left causes the robot to rotate. Users can also grab Cody's arm and abduct or adduct it at the shoulder, causing Cody to move sideways.

The company said Cody's DPI "significantly outperformed a comparable wireless game-pad interface in both objective and subjective areas, including number of collisions, time to complete the tasks, workload and overall preference."

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CosmoBot, pictured above, is part of a phenomenon called robotic therapy. Doctors use CosmoBot to enhance the therapy of developmentally disabled children between 5 and 12 years old. Using the robot can make therapy more interesting for children and allows for better success when achieving long-term therapy goals.

The company designed CosmoBot to collect data on a child's performance. This allows therapists to evaluate how successful the therapy is. Similar to CosmoBot are robots mirroring stuffed animals, also used for therapeutic purposes. For example, PARO, which resembles a stuffed toy baby seal, allows patients to have the experience of animal therapy without the problems associated with live animals. AIST, a leading Japanese industrial automation pioneer, developed the PARO robot, which is designed to "express different moods" depending on the patient's interaction with it, and it can learn how to respond to a certain name when called it a number of times.

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Several scientists and researchers around the world are manufacturing "microbots" -- an assortment of free-roaming robots that carry out precise, delicate tasks inside the human body. For example, a minibot named Steerable Surgeons is made of flat nickel parts assembled to make a 3-D tool that can be used during retinal surgeries, in drug therapy and for ocular disease. Its power sources are external electromagnetic coils, and it uses magnetic field gradients as a steering mechanism.

Similar to Steerable Surgeons are microbots such as Robot Pills and Plaque Busters. Robot Pills are designed as a capsule that contains a magnet, camera, wireless chip and a set of mechanical legs. It's powered by DC motors and magnets outside of the body, and it uses a camera and wireless telemetry system. The Robot Pill is about two centimeters long and clinicians use it in disease screening.

Similarly, Plaque Busters are magnetic capsules equipped with a micro drill head. Surgeons use these microbots, which are 10-mm long, to remove plaque from arteries. They're powered by electromagnetic coils and use magnetic field gradients to steer.

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Anybots was founded in 2001 and performs robot research and development. Within healthcare, AnyBots provides a type of immersive telepresence, meaning instead of focusing merely on audio and video communications, the AnyBots robot allows for movement controlled by a remote.

"If you're a doctor and have to manage 10 different nursing homes ... the robot can go in, and the doctor can control his movement and direction," said Shahid Shah, health IT analyst. "It can turn on sensors at the control of not the person in the room, but the person who wants to do the communication," he said. Shah said this type of telepresense is impressive since it can move in and out of a specific area and record findings. "In the future, I'd hope to see new sensors shine a beam of light, for example," he said. "Today, it's more about [helping] a human being who's not in a specific location feel like he's there."

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The Swisslog RoboCourier is an autonomous mobile robot. The tool dispatches and delivers specimens, medications and supplies throughout the hospital, according to the company. Once the robot is carrying what needs to be delivered, a person identifies the destination and the robot selects the most efficient route to deliver the materials.

Unlike other conveying systems, the robot can navigate throughout specific environments without lines, beacons, reflectors, magnets or tape, since each robot is guided by an electronic map that plans the best route to the selected destination. The robot uses laser detection to ensure precise and safe navigation, while voice-activated messages alert staff of the robot's presence. The robot also stops and waits until traffic is clear, and it can signal doors to automatically open so it can move through.

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Just last year, Toyota announced four robots made to help paralyzed patients walk or balance themselves. The company plans to commercialize the robots sometime in 2013. Pictured above is one of the four robots, the Balance Training Assist. The robot acts as a two-wheeled balancing game. The machine displays one of three sports games on a monitor and requires the patient to make moves in the game by shifting his/her weight on the robot.

Other medical robots developed by Toyota include The Walk Training Assist robot and the Independent Walk Assist robot. The Walk Training Assist robot mounts on a paralyzed leg and detects movement of the hips through sensors at the thigh and foot. The robot helps the knee swing and the leg move forward to facilitate walking. The Independent Walk Assist robot is designed for walking training. In addition to helping the leg bend and move forward, the robot supports the patient's weight. The robot adjusts to support less weight as the patient's walking improves. The Assist robots can also monitor metrics, such as joint angles, allowing physicians to more easily track a patient's progress.

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