Boston Dynamics has open-sourced some of its robotics technology to help protect healthcare workers battling the coronavirus.

The robotics firm has developed a healthcare toolkit that it hopes will allow mobile robots to carry out essential functions that reduce the exposure of frontline healthcare staff to COVID-19.

This includes allowing clinicians to speak to patients suspected of having COVID-19 remotely, measuring vital signs and transporting supplies.

The toolkit has been made available on GitHub and includes hardware and software designs for COVID-19 applications, including documentation for CAD mounts and programming scripts.

In a blog post, Boston Dynamics said: “With the deployment of our first healthcare-focused robot, we’re open-sourcing all of our work to empower mobile robotics platforms to leverage the same hardware and software stack that we’ve developed to help frontline healthcare workers.”

The company said it had developed the applications to be vendor-neutral so they were compatible with different types of robotics platforms and not just its own.

Robots are already playing an integral role in efforts to keep essential workers safe as well as contribute to the fight against COVID-19.

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This has seen production lines usually tasked with building cars, home appliances and consumer goods transformed to help build life-saving equipment desperately needed by hospitals and front-line staff.

Boston Dynamics said it had spent six weeks building and testing capabilities to help hospitals save lives using its four-legged mobile robot, Spot.

Robots like Spot could be used to offer critical support for healthcare workers tackling COVID-19.
Spot® robot image provided courtesy of Boston Dynamics, Inc

This began in early March, when hospitals began approaching the company to ask whether its robots could help minimize staff’s exposure to COVID-19 by automating some of the high-risk duties that put them in close proximity to the virus.

“Based on these conversations, as well as the global shortage of critical personal protective equipment (PPE), we have spent the past several weeks trying to better understand hospital requirements to develop a mobile robotics solution with our robot, Spot,” said Boston Dynamics.

“Our hope is that these tools can enable developers and roboticists to rapidly deploy robots in order to reduce risks to medical staff.”

At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, medical teams have been using the Spot robot as a mobile telemedicine platform, using an iPad and two-way radio attached to the robot’s back to triage patients.

The idea is that mobile robots like Spot could by used to speak to patients remotely via video from afar or “possibly even from their own homes”. This not only cuts the risk of medical staff contracting the virus but also helps conserve limited personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, Boston Dynamics said.

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Beyond this, the company wants to explore whether its robots could collect vital signs remotely – though it first needs to figure out the tech a robot would require to accurately measure body temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate and oxygen saturation.

“We have been in dialogue with researchers who use thermal camera technology to measure body temperature and calculate respiratory rate,” Boston Dynamics said.

“We’ve also applied externally developed logic to externally mounted RGB cameras to capture changes in blood vessel contraction to measure pulse rate. We are evaluating methods for measuring oxygen saturation.”

Similarly, the company is looking at how its robots could do essential decontamination work – potentially with mounted UV-C lights capable of disinfecting surfaces and killing coronavirus particles at the same time.

“We are still in the early stages of developing this solution but also see a number of existing mobile robotics providers who have implemented this technology specifically for hospitals,” Boston Dynamics said.

“We hope our fellow mobile robot providers, existing customers, and medical professionals will be able to use this information to leverage mobile robots to take people out of harm’s way during this critical time. Together, we can improve conditions for healthcare workers and essential personnel around the world, save lives, and fight COVID-19.”