Spot the Robot Dog to Measure COVID-19 Patients' Vitals

The plan is to minimize any potential contagious contact between patients and health care workers.
Fabienne Lang
Spot the medical robotMIT

Health care workers are coming face to face with the COVID-19 virus regularly by being in close contact with patients, or people potentially contagious. 

A team of MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital researchers is looking to reduce that contact by using robots that can take patients' vitals and send the results directly to a remote doctor. 

The robots are also able to carry a tablet that can assist a virtual doctor to ask direct questions to the patient in another room. 

The study is currently waiting to be peer-reviewed and has been published in the pre-published online platform, TechXriv.


Spot the dog

The team's robot is none other than the infamous Spot the robot dog, originally built by Boston Dynamics. This COVID-19-assisting version of Spot was first introduced in April this year, and has since gone through some updates and tweaks. Now, he's almost ready to rumble. 

"In robotics, one of our goals is to use automation and robotic technology to remove people from dangerous jobs," explained Henwei Huang, an MIT postdoc. "We thought it should be possible for us to use a robot to remove the health care worker from the risk of directly exposing themselves to the patient."

Spot the Robot Dog to Measure COVID-19 Patients' Vitals
Spot the robot measuring a patient from a safe distance, Source: MIT

Thanks to the four cameras atop Spot, the robot can measure skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate, and blood oxygen saturation from two meters away — something rather useful right now. 

So far, the robot health care assistant has only been tested measuring healthy people, and the plan is to now test patients with COVID-19 symptoms. 

The robot is easy to use and keeps health care workers safe. Spot can be maneuvered to move towards patients thanks to a handheld controller. The cameras are what do the trick. 

An infrared camera and three monochrome ones function thanks to an algorithm developed by the researchers. The algorithm enables the infrared camera to measure elevated skin temperature and breathing rate. 

Huang explained "We didn’t really develop new technology to do the measurements."

"What we did is integrate them together very specifically for the COVID application, to analyze different vital signs at the same time."

The plan at the moment is to use Boston Dynamics' updated Spot robot dog to work in triage centers, where patients are tested to see whether they do, in fact, have COVID-19. Moving down the line, the researchers explained that they hope the robot can be used in hospital bedrooms, in order to help doctors and nurses monitor patients from a safe distance.