A collaborative team of researchers has turned Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robot into a tiny mobile doctor, now able to remotely measure patients’ vital signs from a distance of over six feet (1.8 m). Dubbed Dr Spot, the robot is currently being tested as a way to safely triage potentially contagious COVID-19 patients.
After more than a decade of development Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot has recently been introduced to commercial markets. From inspecting building sites to working on oil rigs, a number of uses are being explored for this robot dog but perhaps one of its more interesting new jobs arose early on in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in April Boston Dynamics began working with staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts. Health care workers at the hospital had suffered a significant raft of infections and needed to find a novel way to minimize exposure to contagious patients.
The initial solution was relatively basic. Custom designed mounts were installed on Spot robots, essentially creating a mobile telemedicine platform. An iPad mount, with a two-way radio, allowed doctors to remotely triage patients as they approached the hospital.
“In robotics, one of our goals is to use automation and robotic technology to remove people from dangerous jobs,” says Henwei Huang, an MIT researcher working on the project. “We thought it should be possible for us to use a robot to remove the health care worker from the risk of directly exposing themselves to the patient.”
Since April, the team has rapidly expanded Spot’s abilities, ultimately developing what is being called VitalCam – “a robotic-assisted vital sign acquisition platform to facilitate contactless vital signs in hospital settings”.
Some patient vital signs are easier than others to measure remotely. Body temperature, for example, can be gathered relatively simply using an infrared camera. In this instance, the research team developed algorithms to more accurately use infrared camera data to measure body and skin temperature by incorporating factors such as ambient temperature and distance from the patient.
The infrared camera can also measure a patient’s breathing rate by calculating temperature changes in their face mask. As they breathe in and out the small fluctuations in the temperature of the mask allow for breathing rate measurements to be collected.
Three other monochrome cameras are incorporated into the VitalCam system. Each camera is set to filter a highly specific spectrum of light (670, 810, and 880 nanometers, respectively). Tracking these particular wavelengths allows the system to detect tiny color changes in skin blood vessels. These changes can be used to calculate a patient’s pulse and their blood oxygen saturation.
“We didn’t really develop new technology to do the measurements,” Huang adds. “What we did is integrate them together very specifically for the Covid application, to analyze different vital signs at the same time.”
The entire system is designed to be remotely operated by a doctor or nurse using a handheld controller. So hypothetically, patients could be triaged and monitored by Dr Spot without ever needing to come into contact with a human health care worker.
The results of the latest VitalCam tests are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, however, they have been posted to a preprint journal. The system so far has only been tested in a small cohort of healthy subjects. The next step will be a preliminary test in a hospital emergency environment with COVID-19 patients.
Take a look at Dr. Spot in the video below.