the TUG!

Robotic couriers are now gracing the halls of more than 100 hospitals across the US. Developed by Pittsburgh-based Aethon, the TUG robots haul carts through the halls delivering medical supplies, blood, meals, and more. They use 'laser whiskers' to avoid obstacles and humans, and wirelessly open doors, and call for elevators. Anywhere you need something to go, the TUG can take it there. Check it out in the videos below. Automation is everywhere!

Paying people to haul goods around is so last century. Robotic systems like KIVA have taken over warehouses, improving efficiency and lowering costs. Aethon is aiming to do the same for hospitals. TUG is the name for the hauling robot - the machine at the bottom that moves the cart. What kind of cart it moves is up to the user. And that creates a versatility that allows TUG to work its magic in many different hospitals. According to Aethon, one TUG robot working two shifts a day, seven days a week, does the equivalent labor of 2.8 full time employees, but costs less than one full time employee. Their case studies seem to back up their claims. Variations on the TUG system have been in hospitals for several years now as you can see in the following segments:

Unlike KIVA, TUG doesn't require the hospital to install radio markers, magnetic strips, or other space delineating technologies. That's because each TUG unit is custom programmed to fit the building it will work in. The TUG operating system (TUGOS) allows for CAD drawings of the hospital to be converted into a map for the robot. If these drawings don't exist for an area, the 'installation engineer' from Aethon will walk the robot through the space. Once the TUG knows its new home, it maps its position from a starting point (a recharging station). An array of laser range finders (the 'whiskers'), ultrasound sensors, and IR monitors help it navigate the hospital and avoid moving obstacles like busy surgeons. WiFi (which is more or less required for TUG use) allows the robot to communicate with other bots (for optimal delivery and performance) to receive requests for action, and to open doors and call elevators.

A full view of the TUG robot without a cart.

In the greater scheme of robots working in human environments, the approach Aethon took to mapping its environment is tantamount to cheating. KIVA's radio tag system lets it dynamically reshape the bins in a warehouse and adapt to any new area quickly. Neato's XV-11 robot vacuum uses an absurdly robust mapping algorithm to plot a single-pass through a space. While TUG handles dynamic obstacles, its environment is custom defined at installation. That requires some major setup. But, whether or not it's 'cheating' it's a perfectly workable solution, especially in a hospital environment where obstacles move but the building rarely reshapes itself.

Once TUG has a map of the hospital in its head, it sets about moving some serious freight. It can haul carts and supplies with combined weight up to 500 lbs. Each TUG robot can operate up to 10 hours on a charge (though not at 500 lbs!). TUGs can even fit dozens of different carts and equipment, and models are available which can switch between cart types  on the go (though many hospitals choose to have each TUG permanently assigned to one cart).

Hospital staff can program the TUG for scheduled routes through a touchscreen. WiFi connectivity allows for delivery requests or pickups, which can also be sent through VOIP or pagers. When a TUG arrives at a destination for pickup or drop off it makes a verbal request. Two large buttons ('pause' and 'go'), allow users to signal when the robot should continue on its route. Depending on the hospital and tasks given to a TUG, the cart may come equipped with a secure door that requires a keycode to open, and RFIDs may track inventory. Automatic doors and elevators can be equipped with wireless controls for the TUG to operate. Generally the TUG will recharge in between each delivery to keep itself ready.

TUG systems demonstrate some amazing aspects of robot-human interaction. In case study reports, staff almost always end up naming and decorating the robots. When the robot becomes stuck behind an obstacle, it will verbally request help, and the staff is generally fond of assisting the robot. They also end up verbally interacting with the TUG despite its inability to follow a conversation. I love watching the hospital staff say 'you're welcome' to the robot in the videos.

Aethon and TUG have already achieved some great success with their system in the US. Look at their online map to see locations for hospitals where the system is in action. While the robot has mostly been responsible for mundane deliveries, it has also brought blood to operating rooms. It's amazing to see how hospitals, one of the most chaotic and serious of human environments, can incorporate and benefit from a robotic system. This is another big sign, I think, that automation is going to reshape all levels of our workforce. Humans will still play an important role, no doubt, but robots are going to do the heavy lifting. Sounds good, I was looking for a chance to relax anyway.

Hey! Robot! Make me a drink.

[image credit: Aethon]

[source: Aethon]