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The robot will see you now

A Boston hospital is using Spot, the dog-like robot of Internet fame, to screen for coronavirus

Research scientist Hen-Wei Huang talked about Spot the robot during a demonstration at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Research scientist Hen-Wei Huang talked about Spot the robot during a demonstration at Brigham and Women's Hospital.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the first encounter a potentially infected person might have is not with a doctor or nurse swathed in protective gear, but with a talking, animal-like robot that looks like it might have wandered off the set of “Star Wars.”

Spot, the agile walking robot from Waltham-based Boston Dynamics, gained Internet notoriety for showing off its dance moves on YouTube. But now it’s going to work in the real world, striding into the danger zone, armed only with an iPad. The robot is posted just outside the hospital, not so much as a sentinel, but as an intake worker that will help doctors safely interview people who fear they may have been infected with the coronavirus.

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“This collaboration is really looking at how we can do all the things we do as emergency medicine physicians, but at a distance," said Peter Chai, an emergency medicine doctor at the Brigham.

The yellow-and-black Spot robot, which resembles a large dog, is positioned inside a big white tent set up in front of the hospital’s main entrance as a triage area for potential COVID-19 cases. It is fitted with an iPad that displays a physician located safely inside the hospital who can use the device’s camera to see the patient’s physical condition. The doctor can talk to the patient through the built-in microphone and a mounted speaker, asking standard diagnostic questions.

The physician is also able to remotely control Spot, directing the machine to move around for a better perspective of the patient.

The Brigham began real-world trials of the system last week, with a handful of patients who had agreed in advance to the robotic interviews. They’re loving it so far, said emergency room doctor Farah Dadabhoy.

“Most people have been very excited to be interacting with this robot and mostly see it as something that is cool and fun,” she said.

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Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development, said that as early as February the company began receiving inquiries from hospitals worldwide. Was it possible, they asked, to use a Spot robot to conduct triage interviews?

There are already lots of wheeled robots trundling through hospitals, delivering meals and medications. Some carry tablet computers and can be used as remote telemedicine devices.

But Perry said the hospitals needed something different. Many had set up their COVID triage areas outdoors, on lawns or in parking lots. On such uneven surfaces, “traditional robotics doesn’t make sense," he said. "We need something that can handle this difficult terrain.”

Enter Spot, the latest in a long series of legged robots developed by Boston Dynamics. The machine has an uncanny animal-like gait, but with the precision of a sewing machine, which allows it to walk on nearly any terrain that a human can. Since Spot’s commercial debut in September, Boston Dynamics has leased about 120 of the machines, with clones marching through cluttered environments such as oil refineries and construction sites. So the speed bumps of a hospital parking lot pose no problem.

Doctors at the Brigham had also been looking into automated triage. In cooperation with engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they worked on remote diagnostic sensors, but they needed a robot to carry them. So in March they reached out to Boston Dynamics.

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The result was a specially modified Spot, featuring the iPad and a little carrying pouch mounted near the robot’s “tail.”

There’s nothing flashy about the pouch, but it’s quite practical. It allows Spot to deliver small items such as bottled water to infected patients, without the need to send in a nurse. Personnel can’t approach a COVID-infected patient, even for something as simple as giving him a bottle of water, without putting on safety gear, then stripping it off upon leaving. That takes time and uses up scarce protective equipment. With the medical version of Spot, health care workers can just put the bottle in the pouch and have it marched over to the patient. And the moisture-resistant robot is designed to be sanitized easily.

The current version of Spot is only good for conducting interviews. But the Brigham will soon deploy an upgraded model with cameras that can measure a patient’s respiration rate and body temperature, with no need to make physical contact.

And Boston Dynamics isn’t hogging the technical innovations. The company said it is giving its medical hardware and software designs at no charge to any robotics company that cares to use them. Perry said Boston Dynamics has already had talks with a Canadian maker of wheeled robots to help it gear up.

Boston Dynamics thinks Spot may also go to work as a cleaning machine. With the capacity for a 33-pound payload, the robot could decontaminate large areas by spraying noxious but effective cleaning fluids, or bathe them in germ-killing ultraviolet light from lamps mounted on its back.

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It’s a major comedown from the fame of YouTube dance videos, but a lot more useful.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.