"Before, robots were very cumbersome. You had to build things into the structure of the hospital for them to run on tracks, which became very expensive, if you wanted to change routes and options for them to go on," says Mike Thompson, assistant administrator at FLA Hospital Celebration Health, which has been using a new sort of robot called a Tug since May.
"But these robots have the ability to sense, and we can map them to anywhere in hospital. They can control elevators, move from level to level, and control security doors," says Thompson.
One of the Tugs has different-sized drawers and runs between the pharmacy and the emergency department while the other two are designated for a brand new Obstetrics unit.
"We recognized not a savings but a cost aversion. With the opening of our new unit, we were going to have to hire staff," says Thompson, adding that Florida Hospital, a 112-bed facility with an exercise center that he characterizes as large for the size of the hospital, has also established a task force to identify other uses, such as in the food service. "We've thought about using them to deliver trays to patients later in the evening," who'd missed meals.
The experience has not been without its close encounters, Thompson says. "The worst thing that's ever happened was when it got caught in the service elevator, and called for help."
The robots, which have been manufactured by Aethon since 2004, are already in use in nearly 50 hospitals, primarily in the eastern United States, says Aethon president and CEO Aldo Zini.
The robots are usually leased for $1,500 a month apiece, which includes the installation, the pre-programmed Tug, and the navigation software. "Most hospitals have done their own quantification, and generally speaking we get ROI in the range of 30 to 50 percent," he says.
Zini says that the software that allows use of the Tug without the painted lines and the wires is fairly new. "We usually just take CAD drawings from the hospital and download them into the Tug.
Aethon is already talking about upgrades, such as the addition of a feature called Asset Tracking and Recovery. "We can apply RFID tags on equipment such as IV, feeding pumps, and wheelchairs, and our Tug can locate where those things are and recover them," says Zini
Aethon, founded in 2001, is now working with a few hospitals to roll the application out, although six centers have already agreed to implement the new application. "Beta testing will be complete by the end of the year. Zini says there will be an additional price. "We have to add the tags, the readers, and some additional software," he says.