Vampire robot vants to suck your blood

Robot phlebotomist uses infrared, ultrasound, and computer vision to target veins. If it floated, it could work on the Death Star.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
Grin and bear it: Veebot can stick you with needles or an IV line. Screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

The first of its kind, Veebot is a prototype robotic phlebotomist, designed to get all Dracula on your arm. It's supposed to be as good as a human at finding a vein and drawing your blood.

Feel any better about getting your blood drawn? Yah, me neither.

I love it when robots do new things, but I have to admit I get more than a shadow of terror at the prospect of needle-wielding robots. Blame it on the "Star Wars" torture droid.

I know. That's just an atavistic meatsack response. We should all welcome the evolution of venipuncture, from leeches to hypodermic needles to robots.

After all, machines already operate on us. The California-based startup behind Veebot says its automated blood-drawing machine can identify the correct vein to tap about 83 percent of the time, or about as good as a human.

To get pricked, a sacrificial human is first led to the Veebot chamber. He or she then places an arm in the machine and an inflatable cuff restricts the blood flow and makes the veins stand out.

Infrared light shines on the inner elbow while Veebot's image-processing algorithms analyze the vein patterns and compare them to an anatomical model.

Once a vein is selected, an ultrasound scan confirms whether it has adequate blood flow. If it does, Veebot inserts a needle and starts drinking the victim's blood.

Veebot also can be used to insert IV lines, so it's not a total robot parasite. It sounds like a nightmare, but it could help in areas such as drug research, which involves tens of thousands of blood draws a year.

Co-founder Richard Harris says he wants to get Veebot's vein-hunting accuracy up to 90 percent before starting clinical trials, which will require outside funding.

There's a potential market for automated blood drawing and IV insertion that could be as large as $9 billion if people can stomach being at the business end of a robotic needle.

"If people don't want a robot drawing their blood, then nobody is going to use it," Harris tells IEEE Spectrum. "We believe if this machine works better, faster, and cheaper than a person, people will want to use it."

Now hold still and watch the Veebot demo below.