November 13, 2013      

Not enough human hands

While high-end surgical robots like Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci have captured most of the health care-related headlines, a new breed of low-end worker bots is slowly making inroads in medical facilities and may one day be as ubiquitous as nurses in America’s 5,000 hospitals (over half are 150 beds or less) and others around the world. These robots perform myriad tasks in hospitals, including patient meal delivery, linen distribution, waste removal, and tracking and delivering medications and blood products. “Fewer than 1,000 of these blue-collar robots currently roam about hospitals, but those numbers are expected to grow quickly,” reports the Wall Street Journal’s Timothy Hay.

“My guess is that in five years, there will be 10 times the number of robots deployed in hospitals than there are today,” said Donald Jones, a managing director at Draper Triangle Ventures (d. December 15, 2012), who is backing privately held robotics company Aethon Inc. “We are just not going to have enough human hands to do all the work.” Such delivery robots also hold promise for a range of industries where there is a need routine material handling, such as the retail, hospitality and manufacturing sectors. Though the cost of a delivery robot may appear high, its ability to run multiple shifts, thus doing the work of several full-time equivalent employees, allows for a rapid ROI.

Silicon Valley’s El Camino Hospital laid off 140 workers in 2010 amid budget constraints. The hospital then entered into a five-year lease with Aethon for 20 TUG robots, which was less than half as expensive as hiring staff, said Ken King, El Camino’s chief of administrative services. Outside of the complaint that the robots sometimes hog the elevators–over which they have control while they ride them–El Camino’s doctors and nurses love the droids, Mr. King said.

When the five-year lease is up, El Camino will either buy the fleet or commit to another lease, he added. Presently, there are four companies active in the delivery robot marketplace for hospitals: Aethon, Panasonic, Swisslog and Vecna. A fifth, CCS Robotics, sold its delivery robot line to Swisslog.


Pittsburgh, PA-based Aethon has 425 of its TUG delivery robots deployed at 130 different hospitals, making a total of 60,000 deliveries a week. Of the TUGs in the field, all are in American hospitals except for four in Denmark, two in Germany and one in Australia. Aethon leases the TUG robot to hospitals at $1,500-$2,000 per month, depending on its application. TUG operates through an onboard computer containing a programmed map of the building. It also has sensors that continuously track its location on the map. It does not require any structural changes to the building such as wires in the floor or sensors in the ceiling.

See related article: Taking Aethon Global: Mobile Hospital Logistics and Beyond


Japanese electronics giant Panasonic has on the market its Hospi, which it introduced in late 2010. It is equipped with four laser range finders and 27 ultrasonic sensors. Its sole function is to dispense and pick up medications from nursing staff. The company previously reported that Hospi was in full use in 50 hospitals in Japan. Panasonic is now in the process of developing Hospi-Rimo–an acronym for “Remote Intelligence and Mobility”–which it announced in late 2011 and is specifically designed for medical use.

Hospi-Rimo is based on the Hospi technology. It adds an interface that allows patients to talk to their doctors “face-to-face” even if the latter is in a different area of the hospital. As it is still in development, there are no hospitals currently using Hospi-Rimo. The timing of its becoming a product, its price and possible distribution are all yet to be decided, according to Panasonic. The company believes the use of Panasonic’s own high-definition imaging communications technology in the Hospi-Rimo will give it superiority in terms of real presence communications.


Switzerland-based Swisslog is the largest supplier of automated guided vehicles to hospitals worldwide, offering the TransCar AGV and RoboCourier lines. Twelve TransCar Low Profile and LShape systems are installed in North American hospitals, using 244 vehicles. Worldwide, 80 systems are in use deploying less than 1,000 total vehicles. The TransCar is not typically leased, but sold under contract, with pricing highly dependent on hospital requirements and facility configuration such as elevators, travel areas, carts, and planning and design. Swisslog has 22 RoboCouriers now in use in 20 hospitals, focusing on the North American market with these units.

With the next-generation of RoboCouriers launched earlier this year, the company is looking at applicability in other regions globally. As reported in Modern Healthcare (May 2013), the RoboCourier costs $75,000 for the basic unit. Pricing varies with accessories (i.e., door, elevator and multiple robot interfaces). It’s also available for lease or rental, with leases as low as $1,500 per month. Last year, Swisslog acquired the SpeciMinder AGV line from Lapeer, MI-based CCS Robotics. The original idea was for Swisslog to have a different brand for its lab and pharmacy robots, but dividing the product line proved confusing to the marketplace. As a result, the new, next-generation line is being sold only under the RoboCourier line throughout the hospital.

Swisslog claims to have the greatest experience and the largest support organization in the market. It installed its first TransCar AGV systems in the 1970s. Swisslog leverages this experience in detailed preliminary analyses that help hospitals plan for optimizing their workflow and efficiency using material handling automation. TransCar comes in a variety of designs–low-profile, high-profile, fork style and fork platen–and uses alternative laser navigation techniques, limiting installation requirements from no modification of environment to adding reflectors.

The next-generation RoboCourier provides maneuverability in tight working environments, total autonomy with no need for constant vendor monitoring, and ease of installation and operation. Both systems are backed by Swisslog’s service and performance guarantees and its support organization of more than 100 service techs in North America alone.

As an aside, CCS Robotics had placed SpeciMinders in five hospitals in the U.S., and all are still in operation and functioning well. The oldest one, named “Frances”, was installed in a pathology lab environment at Christiana Care Health Systems in Newark, DE, where specimens are transported 24/7. Since it began working, it has racked up more than 25,000 miles, opened and transitioned through doors more than 300,000 times without getting stuck, made more than 100,000 deliveries and maintained an uptime of 99 percent.

CCS reports there have only been a handful of tech support calls and most of them were handled over the phone. There is no remote controlling or diagnostics, and the company still makes quarterly visits for preventative maintenance, which includes cleaning the fan filters and lens on the laser with each visit, and replacing the batter pack once or twice per year. CCS continues to provide installation, integration and service for autonomous mobile robots, now focusing on manufacturing the components necessary to integrate a robot in the commercial, industrial and industrial space.


Cambridge, MA-based Vecna Technologies is marketing its QC Bot as a hospital courier, telepresence and patient self-service robot that supports healthcare logistics functions. In just over one year, four domestic and international research and teaching hospitals have deployed the QC Bot for on-demand pharmacy delivery. These health systems include the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, as well as three hospitals in France.

During QC Bot’s first year on the market, nine units were deployed, with another 25 expected by the end of 2014 both in the U.S. and abroad. QC Bot, according to Vecna, is able to navigate safely in unstructured human environments without any infrastructure or restrictions. The robot does not follow walls or lines on the floor and is able to see its surroundings, avoiding obstacles and adapting to changes in real-time. As a result, Vecna says health systems do not need to invest in costly changes to the building infrastructure and clinical staff do not need to modify their workflow to accommodate the robot.

The QC Bot is equipped with an onboard user interface that allows administrators to interact directly with the system, in addition to their web browser. Vecna declined to disclose pricing, but the QC Bot can be leased and the company claims a ROI in one year of operation.

See related pdf download above: Service Robots For Hospitals: Key Technical Issues