Military and consumer robot manufacturer iRobot Corp. in Bedford will unveil a new product Tuesday intended for the health care industry as it diversifies its product line in preparation for looming defense cuts.
The 5-foot-4-inch, 140-pound "telemedicine" robot will be produced in partnership with InTouch Health of Santa Barbara, Calif., a maker of in-hospital robots, and is designed to help patients with health emergencies get more rapid treatment from specialists — especially at night, when hospital staff levels are lower, the company said.
"Telemedicine is about getting the right expertise to the right place at the right time," said InTouch chief executive Yulun Wang. "If a patient has a stroke and comes into the emergency room, you better get a stroke neurologist there quickly. Otherwise, through sheer delay, it can be a matter of life or death."
Called RP-VITA, the robot allows doctors to virtually visit patients in distant locations, carrying on conversations and even taking measurements in real time. Equipped with cameras, microphones, 3-D mapping sensors, a stethoscope, and a video screen "head" that automatically swivels to listen to voices, the robot transmits and receives video, audio, and navigation instructions over a Wi-Fi broadband connection.
Doctors, patients, and hospital staff control the robot with a specialized terminal or via a software application that runs on Apple Inc.'s iPad tablet computer, and talk to one another using a Skype-like video chat displayed on the robot's main screen.
"I can get data I never had over the phone," said Dr. Jason Knight, a pediatric emergency care physician at the Children's Hospital of Orange County in California, who has been testing a prototype of the robot. "There's never been one time I've used it and said, 'That was a waste of time.' I always see something I wouldn't have otherwise."
In February, iRobot said it planned to widen its product range to reduce its dependence on defense contracts as the Pentagon executes plans to cut its budget by $450 billion over the next 10 years. The company, which also makes consumer products such as the Roomba vacuum robot, laid off 55 workers, or around 8 percent of its workforce, in October.
The RP-VITA incorporates a number of design advances, according to iRobot senior vice president Glen Weinstein. The robot can interact in real-time with heart monitors, blood oxygenation sensors, ultrasound machines, and other diagnostic tools, to give doctors on the other end of the connection access to patient data. And where earlier hospital robots were steered manually, or wheeled from room to room by staffers, the RP-VITA can navigate to learned destinations on its own, avoiding obstacles along the way. It will even give a wider berth to people than it does to inanimate objects, like furnishings, as it roams the hallways.
"The ability of our systems to work in a dynamic environment has only been mature for the last couple years," said Weinstein. "From my perspective, this is the most sophisticated robot that's been created. It's really pulling together a significant amount of expertise that I don't believe exists elsewhere in the world."
The RP-VITA is scheduled to be released late this year, and will cost between $4,000 and $6,000 per month to lease, according to iRobot.
"From the patient perspective, the advantage is the rapidity. The faster you get a diagnosis and treatment, the better your outcome," said Liz Boehm of ExperiaHealth, a patient experience consultant firm in San Francisco.
The use of telemedicine robots is still very limited, said Boehm, who said some of the benefits can be realized simply through using the Skype video service. But either way, she said, patients can expect to see a growing use of remote communications technology in medicine.
"For clinicians, the ability to be home more and not have calls be so onerous, that's wonderful," she said, "because the clinician is less likely to get burnt out by her job, and can give better care to more people."
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