Paging Dr. Robot

Using Medical Robots to Reduce Risks for Health-Care Workers

By Dan Rubinstein
3 min. read
Technology for Good
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A team of Carleton University robotics researchers

The robot wheels into the hospital room of a patient who is coughing and feverous—symptoms typically associated with COVID-19 or a number of other contagious illnesses.

Through the monitor, camera and microphone on the “face” of the four-and-half-foot-tall, remote-controlled intelligent telepresence device, a doctor in a nearby room can safely talk to the patient and assess their condition.

Then a touchless drawer on the front of the robot slides open. Inside are a stethoscope, a thermometer, a pulse oximeter and several more medical instruments. With the doctor providing instructions, the patient checks their own vital signs—measures such as heart rate and blood oxygen saturation, which are instantaneously transmitted to the doctor’s computer.

Intake assessment complete, the patient puts the instruments back in the drawer, where they’re disinfected with a UV light as the robot rolls into the hallway and to a nearby station for a disinfecting UV shower of its own before its next assignment.

While this may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, if a team at Carleton University has its way, it could be a reality sooner than we think. Inspired by the pandemic, their medical robotics project is an attempt to meet challenges faced by health-care workers as they diagnose and treat patients with infectious diseases.

Led by Mojtaba Ahmadi, a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering researcher who is supported by three master’s students and several undergraduates, the team was already working on assistive devices for seniors and health-care environments when the coronavirus reached Canada.

In collaboration with doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and with funding from Carleton’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program, Ahmadi and his Advanced Biomechatronics and Locomotion Laboratory quickly began developing a robot that can not only provide high-quality care but also keep health-care workers safe.

“Getting this robot ready is an interesting challenge and takes time,” says Ahmadi.

“The mechanics and electronics are there and a lot of the core issues we were facing have been addressed. We just have to integrate things, do some more software development and make sure the user interface is effective. Then we’ll be able to start testing.”

Testing Medical Robots in the Hospital Environment

Initially, doctors from CHEO will come to the Carleton campus for trial runs, perhaps as soon as this spring or summer. For the next phase of testing, the robot will be taken to the hospital, where its omni-directional nature—it can travel in any direction—will allow it to navigate a complex and busy environment.

With three wheels below its half-metre wide base and an ABS plastic shell over its pyramidical aluminum frame, the robot won’t look like a human. That’s a key point, because it’s not replacing physicians, nurses or other health-care workers—its purpose is making it easier and safer for people to do their jobs.

“Assistive technology is an important area for robotics,” says Max Polzin, one of the master’s students contributing to the project.

“This type of automation can make things safer for people and help speed up their work.”

Polzin’s particular focus involves “semantic learning,” which essentially means enabling the robot to understand and relate to its environment in a human way. The sensors in its navigation system gather geometric data and perform object detection, but he’s hoping to program the device so that, for example, it will see and recognize a refrigerator and know that it’s in a kitchen when it’s been asked to retrieve a water bottle for somebody.

In addition to testing the technology, the researchers will also do human factor experiments to see how patients might interact with the robot.

Moreover, because the system is modular and the drawer of medical instruments can be swapped out for an assistive arm, getting insights into how people perceive the robot will help expand its use into long-term care homes and independent living situations where seniors might need help with certain physical tasks.

“It’s part of our broader look at assistive devices and applications,” says Ahmadi, who also helms the ongoing Intelligent Telepresence and Assistive Devices (iTAD) project for fourth-year engineering students at Carleton.

“The system could be a game changer for rapid and safe responses to outbreaks like COVID-19,” he adds. “Bridging two very strong teams of medical and engineering experts in Ottawa, with each having access to novel technologies, could lay the base for a future solution as a frontline health-care outbreak device.

“But this project will go beyond health care. Other applications exist in areas such as natural disasters, material spills, independent living and nursing homes.”

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