Nuance was the name of the game at last month’s Robo- Business show in Pittsburgh. This year, the aisles were populated not just by people and remote-control robots but also by a few autonomous robots— and some of these robots weren’t research projects but platforms that were for sale.
During one of the last tech sessions of the show, CCS Robotics chief technical officer Anthony Diodato described the company’s SpeciMinder robots and how they have operated in hospitals for the past couple of years with 98% availability. Not only that, the robots have been operating autonomously.
SpeciMinders are gophers, with specific locations where they stop to pick up medical materials (see the figure). Users place items such as specimen samples and medication on the robot and press a destination button. The robot then winds its way to the destination, where it stops and waits for another person to remove the desired material. On occasion, the robot wanders back to its charging station, but it usually scurries about doing its masters’ bidding.
Previously, members of the hospital staff would transport such items, often taking longer because deliveries are boring, low-priority responsibilities. Multitasking simply adds latency to the equation. Robots improve overall efficiency, and they’re cheaper and more effective than the usual alternative, pnuematic tubes.
The system uses a silicon-carbide laser for tracking its position as well as obstacles. For example, it can wait for people in its path to move before proceeding. If an inanimate object is blocking its path, it chooses an alternate route.
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But the real story isn’t just a successful robotic solution. CCS Robotics took an existing platform from MobileRobots that could go from point A to point B while avoiding obstacles without requiring a robotics programmer. ARCS provided most of this support as part of the MobileRobots platform.
CCS Robotics added quite a bit, but much of the new support was built on top of the platform. In addition to the user interface, CCS Robotics included a wireless system for operating the automatic doors found around the hospitals. A wireless interface augments those doors as well.
The bottom line is that CCS Robotics has come up with a robust system that is very reliable and built it without picking up a graduate degree. Its designers used major components instead of building everything from scratch.
Is the platform the end point of for hospital delivery systems? No, but improvements could come from a variety of sources. For instance, one downtime issue occurred when a user hit the panic button to stop the robot. It only happened occassionally and often when the robot was taking an alternate route, though it required resetting the robot so it knew where it was located. Adding something like Evolution Robotics’ NorthStar location system might simplify the job or even eliminate user intervention after the reset.
Robot platforms still have a long way to go, but the development environment is starting to turn from research into production. Of course, creating the entire platform within a company is still the norm. Either way, the number of robots you may encounter is growing steadily.