7 Healthcare Robots for the Smart Hospital of the Future

Funny how quickly a little pandemic can change your perspective. For years, we’ve been writing about what kind of jobs robots will do in the future – and how many humans will end up doing value-added tasks in the unemployment line. There’s certainly some valid concern about the loss of high-paying white-collar jobs, as well as many solid blue-collar positions in warehouses, agriculture, and elsewhere. But let’s face it: There are plenty of dull, dangerous, and dirty jobs that few of us want to do. Add a deadly virus into the mix and the prospect of replacing some people with robots suddenly seems like a very good idea. In particular, the current healthcare crisis is giving us a look into how healthcare robots will staff smart hospitals in the future. Thanks to the initial success of Intuitive Surgical, we already have many types of surgical robots performing surgeries. Surely, some of the less glamorous tasks in the healthcare industry can be displaced by robotic applications or even collaborative robots.

Actually, we don’t even have to wait for some version of Star Trek to glimpse the future. Just beam over to China right now – good luck finding a flight – or read this story from CNBC about a smart field hospital in Wuhan where all the services are carried out by robots and IoT sensors. In addition to things like 5G-connected smart thermometers and artificial intelligence-powered remote patient monitoring tech, there’s a small army of healthcare robots helping out the nurses and doctors overseeing the operation.

While the healthcare robotics market has largely focused on the glamorous robots found in surgery rooms, there are plenty of other applications for healthcare robotics. The two main categories of healthcare robots in the limelight today can be broken into service robots and disinfectant robots.

Healthcare Robots for Hospital Services

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The company behind the effort at the Wuhan smart hospital sports a familiar name: CloudMinds. You might recall that the Chinese robotics firm, founded about five years ago, was supposed to go public in 2019 after raising about $316 million. One of the company’s key investors is SoftBank (SFTBY), known for its $100 billion Vision Fund – and lately for making more bad bets than Brian Molony. SoftBank-backed WeWork is the most infamous debacle of the Japanese telecommunication company’s venture capital arm but it’s not the only one. In January, CloudMinds laid off a reported 175 to 225 people out of about 700 employees. Not surprisingly, the startup is burning through cash, losing about $60 million in just three months in the first quarter of last year, according to the company’s SEC filing, when it was still eyeballing an IPO. 

CloudMinds XR-1 service robot.
Credit: CloudMinds

Not only is CloudMinds pulling out of Silicon Valley, but it can’t even export any of the technology it developed in the United States back to China due to new U.S. government restrictions. The company has developed a range of robots, along with a cloud-based platform that does most of the thinking. Its first commercial robot, the XR-1, is a sort of humanoid with wheels that can grab objects, open doors, and thread a needle. Don’t worry, it’s not doing robotic surgery yet, but it has been drafted as a medical robot assistant.

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Another Chinese robotics company that we’ve covered before, UBTECH Robotics is also adapting its line of hospitality service robots to serve hospitals during the COVID-19 outbreak. The startup had raised $120 million at an impressive $1 billion valuation when we last checked it out in 2017. Today, UBTECH sits at a valuation of $5 billion thanks to total funding of $940 million, including a mega $820 million Series C a couple of years ago, led by Chinese tech giant Tencent (TCEHY). 

The Cruzr service robot from UBTECH.
Credit: UBTECH

The robots are reportedly “providing video conferencing services between patients and doctors, monitoring the body temperatures of visitors and patients, and disinfecting designated areas.”

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Austin-based Diligent Robotics, founded in 2017, has been steadily raising money since we first profiled the company a little more than a year ago. It has brought in $15.8 million, including a $10 million Series A just last month. The startup’s robot, Moxi, is directly marketed to healthcare providers as a service robot rather than being converted to the COVID-19 cause.

Moxi medical robot from Diligent Robotics
Moxi can handle medical supplies and the slam dunk. Credit: Diligent Robotics

Diligent Robotics notes that bedside nurse turnover rate is 16.8% and nearly a quarter of new hires leave within a year – and that was before the coronavirus struck.

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Another company that has developed a medical robot specifically for hospitals is Pittsburgh-based Aethon, which had raised $56.8 million before it was acquired in 2017 by a Singaporean firm called ST Engineering (STE) for only $36 million. The Asian tech, aerospace, and defense company also develops smart city solutions, so no doubt Aethon’s autonomous mobile robot TUG fits into that category. The startup is now a direct subsidiary of ST Engineering, and its medical robot definitely fits more into the look and feel of a last-mile delivery robot

Aethon's TUG medical robot.
Hint: The drugs are located inside the robot. Credit: Aethon

TUG can function in a number of capacities, from nurse assistant to pharmacy and lab courier to mobile medical waste garbage can. In a recent blog post, the company pushed the COVID-19 angle, claiming that since the first week of February, usage of TUG by its hospital customers located in hotspots around the country has increased by more than 30% compared to their weekly average through 2019.  

Medical Robots to Combat Hospital-Acquired Infections

Building robots to perform janitorial duties isn’t new, but aside from automated commercial floor cleaners (really just supersized robotic vacuum cleaners), there’s nothing too specialized for smart hospitals except for disinfecting robots. That’s because if you really want to be assured of getting an infection, just visit a hospital. About one in 31 people will get what’s called a hospital- or healthcare-acquired infection (HAI), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And just like antibiotic-resistant superbugs, some of these microorganisms have built up a tolerance to cleaning chemicals. The top five infections cost the U.S. healthcare system about $10 billion per year:

Credit: CDDEP

The coronavirus can reportedly chill on some surfaces for up to 72 hours. That sobering stat has suddenly thrust the humble medical disinfecting robot into the (ultraviolet) spotlight as a prime weapon in the current pandemic.

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The most hyped and well-funded of the bunch appears to be Xenex Disinfection Services out of San Antonio, Texas. Founded in 2009, Xenex has raised $91.4 million. The startup’s LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robots use pulsed xenon, a noble gas, to create intense, full-spectrum UV light that destroys infectious germs in less than five minutes. In a study published a couple of years ago, researchers tested surfaces from rooms in two hospitals cleaned using pulsed xenon UV versus rooms from two hospitals cleaned traditionally. Bacterial counts were reduced anywhere from 75% to 84%. Manual disinfection could only wipe out 25% to 30% of infection-causing bacteria. 

Xenex disinfection robot.
Credit: Xenex

Crunchbase reported that Xenex has “thousands of robots” in operation, and orders have jumped 400% in the first quarter of this year against all of 2019. 

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Another startup that has developed a bacteria battling bot that uses UV light to kill germy surfaces is UVD Robots, which was established in 2016 by its parent company, Blue Ocean Robotics. The latter, based in Odense, Denmark, has raised $48.7 million, including a $12 million venture round in December 2019. The UVD robot uses LiDAR to map its environment, which enables it to move autonomously through a hospital where it can zap surfaces with enough UV light to kill nearly everything in about 10 to 15 minutes. It can even detect motion and shut off its death beams if a human enters the area.

UVD robot
Credit: UVD Robotics

Like Xenex, UVD Robots has deployed hundreds of its automated machines to fight the coronavirus, with robots in about 40 countries. 

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A number of other companies offer a variation on the UV disinfection robot model, though the term “robot” in some cases is probably something of an overstatement. For example, a medical device company called Skytron that’s been around since 1972 produces a line of UV Light Disinfection Robots that look like someone just arranged a bunch of light tubes vertically on a wheeled cart. 

UV medical robot from Skytron
Credit: Skytron

The instrument can adjust UV dosage based on variables such as room size, layout, furnishings, and environmental characteristics. A user controls the device with a wireless handheld controller. The tech was originally developed by a company called Infection Prevention Technologies, which sold its assets and patents to the private Michigan medical company back in 2017.

Conclusion

We’ve heard ad nauseam about how COVID-19 will forever change the world we live in – but there’s likely some truth to that statement. One consequence could be the broader and quicker adoption of automation and robotics, including things like delivery drones for medical supplies and robotic assistants for elderly care (a high-risk population for severe respiratory illnesses like COVID-19). While medical robots are suddenly more popular than smart juicers circa 1970, whether they will continue to be deployed after the coronavirus epidemic ends remains to be seen. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, interest in medical robots became all the rage – and then faded away.  

An international team of researchers published an editorial last month in the journal Science Robotics that argued COVID-19 is exactly the sort of emergency we need to spur investment into academic and commercial R&D. They concluded: “[W]ithout sustained research efforts robots will, once again, not be ready for the next incident. By fostering a fusion of engineering and infectious disease professionals with dedicated funding, we can be ready when (not if) the next pandemic arrives.”

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