The robotic dog called Spot (or Dr. Spot) is capable of measuring users’ vital signs from a distance of 2 meters, making it suitable for pandemics. It can move at a speed of up to 3 mph (4.8 km/h), and comes with a rechargeable and interchangeable battery with a range of 90 minutes.
Manufactured by Boston Dynamics, it has been available for purchase since September 2019 but it was during the COVID-19 outbreak when it got into the spotlight.
Specifically, Dr. Spot was put to good use by researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital who wanted to test the robot to monitor vital signs of potentially infectious patients, allowing healthcare workers to minimize their exposure to the Coronavirus.
Using existing computer vision technologies, this robot can measure skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate, and blood oxygen saturation.
Controlled by the handheld device, Dr. Spot also carries a tablet that allows doctors to ask patients about their symptoms without being in the same room.
The researchers mounted four different cameras onto the robot, including an infrared camera and three monochromes cameras that filter out different wavelengths of light.
In addition, they developed algorithms that allow them to use the infrared camera to measure both elevated skin temperature and respiratory rate. For body temperature, the camera measures the skin on the face, and the algorithm correlates it with core body temperature. It also takes into account the ambient temperature and the distance between the camera and the patient, so that measurements can be taken from different distances, under different weather conditions, and still be accurate.
Infrared camera measurements can also be used to calculate the patient’s breathing rate. As he/she inhales and exhales with a mask, their breath changes the temperature of the mask. Measuring this change in temperature allows the software to calculate how fast the patient is breathing.
The three other cameras filter a different wavelength of light of 670, 810, and 880 nanometers — which, combined, make it possible to measure the slight color changes that result when hemoglobin in blood cells binds to oxygen and flows through the blood vessels. In this way, researchers could calculate both the pulse rate and oxygen saturation in the blood.
“We didn’t really develop new technology to do the measurements,” said Henwei Huang, one of the lead authors of the study. “What we did is integrate them together very specifically for the COVID application, to analyze different vital signs at the same time.”
The researchers performed the measurements on healthy volunteers and are also looking forward to testing the robotic approach in people with COVID-19 symptoms. For the project to be used on a large scale, however, approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is required.
For what it matters, the Spot robot has already been used to monitor social distancing during the lockdown period. It’s priced at $74,500.
Procuring Dr. Spot from Boston Dynamics for the large national (government-owned) health system makes sense for rich countries which can justify the robot's steep price tag. Also, the procurement could be justified in places with significant shortages of doctors — and that is increasingly becoming a global problem. In that sense, the price of Dr. Spot may not be a big problem, and the potential benefits beyond healthcare are huge — the robot alone could attract the talent looking to work in a high-tech environment.
A savvy business could contact Boston Dynamics to sell Dr. Spot to the local health system(s). It could be a test "installation" first and perhaps later expanded to include more than a single unit. The benefits of using a robot instead of nurses or doctors are obvious especially during pandemics when this sort of technology could keep the hospital staff safe from the virus exposure. And that should be the number one reason for justifying Dr. Spot's steep price - it keeps doctors safe while also improving productivity.