Dr. Spot, the Robot Dog Doctor

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is pressing Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot into service for medical support during the COVID-19 outbreak.

They’ve updated Spot with a tablet for a face and a two-way radio, so medical professionals can triage patients with less danger of infection. Spot is good at getting around, so Dr. Spot doesn’t need to have a human companion to help negotiate turns. With Spot’s help, fewer healthcare workers are needed, and personal protective equipment can be conserved.

Possible problems

Patients are accepting the process. But there are some concerns. A tablet has a non-porous surface, and the coronavirus may be able to live on that type of surface for three to four days. A robot can be programmed to keep from knocking people over or crushing them, but perhaps not to avoid bringing the virus close enough for infection.

Certainly, Dr. Spot has to be disinfected between people’s opportunities to touch the surface.

There is also concern that the virus might be blown into the air by the robot’s fans. In other words, Dr. Spot can’t get sick, but may be able to spread the virus in much the same ways a human can.

Future extensions

At the moment, Dr. Spot seems to be doing something most patients could use their phones to do. The added cost may not be worth it. But Boston Dynamics and the healthcare professionals they’re working with are thinking about new possibilities.

Could Spot disinfect hospital rooms or even public transport with ultraviolet light? This would require a lot of energy, and robots can’t store much energy. But that could be a problem with a solution.

Boston Dynamics is making their programming open source to encourage others to come up with innovative ways to use Spot to mitigate COVID-19. Many more possible uses could be developed.

Automation has made many jobs safer, from firefighting on. We expect to see more progress, inspired by this difficult time.

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