Boston Dynamics builds robotic Dr. Spot to help physicians do triage without seeing patients


A dog-like mobile robot named Dr. Spot could advance medical treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing a new connection between patients in isolation and doctors who need to see them.

The four-legged robot is designed to help evaluations by having the canine machine with a video camera, which is connected to a physician, visit patients who need to be isolated, the New York Post reported.

“Early on in the pandemic we wanted to help protect the health-care workforce from the virus by limiting their exposure to potentially COVID-infected patients,” said Giovanni Traverso, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of mechanical engineering who worked on the project. 

“We wondered if we could do that by incorporating robotic systems in health-care environments, and if patients would be willing to engage with robots during their evaluations,” he said. 

In a new study published this month, Traverso and colleagues Peter Chai and Henwei Huang described how patients reacted to medical attention from robots. 

“People are very positive and accepting of robotic systems in health-care settings, particularly during the pandemic,” Traverso said.

Dr. Spot, a robot built to help physicians see patients without direct contact during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

The robot developed by MIT and Boston Dynamics can perform minor procedures such as assessing vital signs, taking nasal swabs and placing intravenous catheters

The robot developed by MIT and Boston Dynamics can perform minor procedures such as assessing vital signs, taking nasal swabs and placing intravenous catheters

The researchers conducted a nationwide survey of 1,000 people to analyze their thoughts on receiving medical services from robots.

“We found that folks across the nation were willing to engage with robots, particularly systems that facilitate telehealth and systems that facilitate measuring vital signs like heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen levels,” Traverso said.

Giovanni Traverso is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of mechanical engineering who helped develop Dr. Spot

The researchers then teamed with engineering and robotics design firm Boston Dynamics in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts, to build Dr. Spot.

Dr. Spot is made of aluminum, plastic and circuit boards and, like some other robotic doctors, can perform minor procedures including assessing vital signs, taking nasal swabs and placing intravenous catheters.

“It takes a few months to build a robot,” said Marco da Silva, a principal roboticist at Boston Dynamic, which is owned by SoftBank Group Corp. 

The product offerings from Boston Dynamics start around $74,500, with the option of additional customizations that can cost more than $20,000 each, its website said. 

Da Silva said another six weeks were needed to construct the specialized software and modifications needed to give Spot the abilities to perform patient assessments.

Marco da Silva, a principal roboticist at Boston Dynamic who worked on the Dr. Spot project

Marco da Silva, a principal roboticist at Boston Dynamic who worked on the Dr. Spot project

Researchers introduced Dr. Spot to 40 patients in the emergency department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The team mounted an iPad to Spot’s base, which displayed a real-time, person-to-person video allowing doctors and nurses to conduct telehealth interviews with patients while they operated the robot with a remote control.

The robo-doc’s sophisticated cameras and computer systems that can identify a face even if a patient is wearing a mask. It can also assess body temperature, breathing and pulse rates and uses special lens filters to determine blood oxygen saturation. 

People stand on the lawn outside Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts

People stand on the lawn outside Building 10 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Boston Dynamics headquarters inu00A0Waltham, Massachusetts. The robotics and engineering firm teamed with MIT to work on the Dr. Spot project

The Boston Dynamics headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts. The robotics and engineering firm teamed with MIT to work on the Dr. Spot project

“Overall, patients in the emergency department responded very favorably to Dr. Spot, especially because it reduces the risk of person-to-person exposure to COVID,” Traverso said.

More than 90 percent of the patients reported their interactions with the robot were satisfactory and said they were willing to interact with more robotic systems, the study said.

“Robotics, to some extent, are used in hospital settings already,” Traverso said. “But in the setting of COVID-19, we’re seeing that robotic systems really could play a significant role in health care based on people’s high acceptance.”



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