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FDA approves iRobot device for use in hospitals

Machine meant to aid doctors, but cost is high

Bedford’s iRobot Corp., best known for its Roomba vacuum cleaners, has won Food and Drug Administration clearance for a new line of robots designed to let doctors interact with hospital patients remotely.

The sleek, 5-foot-6-inch robot called the RP-VITA is designed to navigate around hospitals on its own and has a 15-inch LCD screen as a face.

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It represents the early stages of a big push by iRobot into the health care market as the defense side of its business continues to contract.

The first RP-VITA robots, which would cost hospitals between $4,000 and $6,000 a month to operate, could begin appearing in medical centers throughout the country in the next few months.

“We think it’s the beginning of an amazing new phase for the use of robots in telemedicine,” said Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot, which developed the robots in partnership with InTouch Health Inc., a Santa Barbara, Calif., company that is one of the pioneers in telemedicine systems.

Hospitals often use telemedicine to allow specialists to diagnose patients from long distances.

IRobot began a partnership with InTouch Health about a year ago when it invested $6 million to buy a minority stake in the company.

“Today, the market is just getting started,” said Philip Solis, an analyst with ABI Research in New York. “Telepresence robots are seeing some use, but it’s still on a limited basis.”

IRobots’ RP-VITA, which is the first FDA-cleared telemedicine robot that uses autonomous movement technology, will have to compete with a growing number of robots entering the health care market, said Solis.

“You could envision a lot of different robots that can do many different things, but can the hospital afford it? That’s going to be the issue,” he said.

The RP-VITA is outfitted with advanced cameras, touchscreen displays, speakers, and sensors. Doctors operate the robot with an iPad tablet, and the doctor’s face will appear on the LCD screen atop the robot.

InTouch Health chief executive Yulun Wang acknowledged that the steep price for RP-VITA will be an issue for hospitals, many of which are operating under increasing pressures to reduce health care costs.

But he said the technology that goes into the RP-VITA is expensive and some of the most advanced on the market. “There’s just a lot more than dropping a robot off at the back dock,” he said.

IRobot has reduced its workforce over the past year or so in anticipation of additional cuts in military spending, which would mean fewer sales of products such as robots designed for bomb removal.

IRobot stock closed Wednesday at $21.11, down less than 1 percent.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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