Robot doctors and nurses don’t sound like a particularly good thing, do they? Even if technology ultimately gave them computer-assisted diagnostic abilities that humans just couldn’t match, they’d still lack compassion — and that’s a pretty important quality when it comes to healthcare.

Boston Dynamics

Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now, and we need to protect our healthcare workers at all costs. Suddenly, the idea of a robot dog holding up an iPad sounds like a great stand-in for a living, breathing person, and that’s exactly what’s playing out in one Boston hospital right now.

Engineering and robotics design company Boston Dynamics is best known for “BigDog,” a quadrupedal robot it created in 2004 as a robotic pack mule for the military. But its smaller, more nimble “Spot” may prove to be its most versatile creation yet, able to traverse rough terrain but also small enough to use indoors. The company names construction, oil, and gas facility inspections, public safety, and entertainment as its primary applications.

Using it to help reduce exposure of frontline healthcare workers to the novel coronavirus was a no-brainer, the company says. In early March, Boston Dynamics started getting worried inquiries from local hospitals. At Brigham And Women’s Hospital, one sixth of staff contracted the disease within a week. That spurred the company into action, testing ways to use Spot as a mobile robotics solution.

An official statement explains that “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. The result is a legged robot application that can be deployed to support frontline staff responding to the pandemic in ad-hoc environments such as triage tents and parking lots.”

“With current protocols at local hospitals, patients suspected to have COVID-19 are asked to line up in tents outside to answer questions and get initial assessments for temperature. This process requires up to five medical staff, placing those individuals at high risk of contracting the virus. With the use of a mobile robot, hospitals are able to reduce the number of necessary medical staff at the scene and conserve their limited PPE supply.”

The robot is now used as a mobile telemedicine platform that allows healthcare providers to remotely triage patients. The company mounts an iPad and a two-way radio to the robot’s back, allowing doctors to video conference with patients as they remotely navigate the robot through lines of sick people in the tents. That means doctors can not only stay out of harm’s way, but even work from home.

Spot allows healthcare officials to examine patients and move around remotely.

The technology is far from perfectly tailored to this task, but that’s rapidly changing. Boston Dynamics is still working on ways to remotely collect important vital sign information like oxygen saturation and body temperature, which it may address with thermal and RGB cameras. They might even equip “Spot” with UV-C lights or other disinfecting methods to kill the virus in hospitals and public places.

If you’re a healthcare worker or official interested in using the technology at your facility, you can get in touch with Boston Dynamics through their website.