Panasonic's ongoing effort to automate Japanese hospitals continued this month with the launch of the HOSPI-R, an autonomous delivery robot that is now on sale. In its press release, Panasonic contends that robots like this one are needed to maintain and improve the quality of nursing services due to Japan's rapidly aging society. The latest in the company's line of HOSPI robots is designed to transport samples and drugs so that lab technicians and nurses won't have to.
Panasonic has been working on this particular problem for the past few years. In early 2010, nurses and pharmacists complained that their work was being constantly interrupted whenever drugs had to be delivered. Beginning with just two robots to help out during the night shift, soon the robots were working 24/7. Finally, after more than two years of experimental use at the Matsushita Memorial Hospital, the robots are ready to go pro.
The main benefit of the HOSPI-R is its autonomous navigation capabilities. Whereas many automation systems rely on obtrusive rail systems or other delineated routes, the HOSPI-R navigates using just its onboard sensors. When compared with conventional rail systems, Panasonic's system implementation costs reduce to between 25 and 50 percent (and maintenance costs are reduced to 20 percent).
A map of the building is programmed in advance, which it uses to plan its route. If the route changes because an extension is built onto existing facilities, the system is flexible enough to handle it, and the robot can even take the elevators automatically. If, along the way, it encounters obstacles during its trip, such as a person in a wheelchair, the robot automatically adjusts its route using its sensors.
As you might expect, the HOSPI-R also has some security features to prevent tampering, damage, and theft of the drugs and samples it is tasked with delivering. An automatically locking door on its storage container opens with ID cards, and liquids (such as chemical or urine samples) are kept in a stable position to limit foaming. The robot's gradual acceleration and deceleration also helps to ensure a smooth trip from start to finish.
The robot can carry up to 20 kg (44 lb), and moves at a maximum speed of 1 meter per second (2.2 mph). It can work up to seven hours before needing to be recharged, which takes about eight hours, so a team of robots on rotation can work 24 hours a day. Panasonic did not reveal specific pricing, as that will vary depending on the needs of each facility.
Panasonic was at IREX 2013 (as was our own Mike Hanlon) to demonstrate the HOSPI-R and some of its other medical robots, among them a robotic hospital bed which can transform into an electric wheelchair when needed. It's one of many technologies designed to move bedridden patients more safely, thereby preventing common injuries to both patients and caregivers.
Also at the show was the HOSPI-Rimo, a telepresence robot that is functionally similar to the iRobot Ava 500. It features a larger display than the standard HOSPI robots to facilitate video chats between doctors and patients. Besides these, Panasonic is also developing a number of other devices, including a hair washing machine with robotic fingers for massaging the scalp.
Check out the photo gallery for a closer look at the robots on display at Panasonic's booth.