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See Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot protect medical workers from coronavirus

The four-legged robot can take patients' vital signs, saving humans from possible exposure.

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Doggone it, that Spot is proving himself a pretty helpful robot. Spot, the four-legged dog-like robot from Boston Dynamics, has done everything from herding sheep to cheering on baseball teams, but during the coronavirus pandemic, the robots are now protecting medical workers from possible exposure to the virus. 

As we reported in April, the Spot robots are equipped with devices, including cameras and a tablet computer, to let doctors ask patients about their symptoms without being in the same room. Researchers  from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have now published a paper about the results of their springtime test and are ready to try Dr. Spot out on real patients with coronavirus symptoms.

"In robotics, one of our goals is to use automation and robotic technology to remove people from dangerous jobs," Henwei Huang, one of the study's lead authors, said in a release. "We thought it should be possible for us to use a robot to remove the health care worker from the risk of directly exposing themselves to the patient."


The Spot robot holds a tablet computer showing the face of a doctor who may pose questions to the patient.

Courtesy MIT

Spot trots up to the patients, wearing four different cameras -- an infrared camera, plus three monochrome cameras that filter different wavelengths of light. The infrared camera can measure both elevated skin temperature and breathing rate. 

The three monochrome cameras measure the slight color changes that result when hemoglobin in blood cells binds to oxygen and flows through blood vessels, helping medical staff calculate a patient's pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation.

"We didn't really develop new technology to do the measurements," Huang says. "What we did is integrate them together very specifically for the COVID application, to analyze different vital signs at the same time."

For now,  the Spot robots will help doctors triage new patients, but researchers envision that the robots one day could be deployed in hospital rooms to monitor patients and allow doctors to check on them from a distance.