Robots roam hallways of SF's newest hospital, lending a helping hand

A fleet of 25 new workers rolls through the hallways of UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, delivering meals and medicine, among other tasks formerly completed by humans.

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UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay is coming equipped with 25 of these autonomous robots tasked with delivering food, medicine and supplies. James Martin/CNET

Meet Eve, a short, refrigerator-wide robot. While it doesn't have arms, or a head, its portly frame can haul heavy loads, dispense supplies and travel long distances.

Eve is one of 25 autonomous robots programmed to help the staff of San Francisco's newest hospital. When the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center at Mission Bay opens on February 1, Eve and its comrades will be cruising the corridors to bring supplies to and from the pharmacy, kitchen, lab and stock rooms.

Although nearly 160 other hospitals employ robots like Eve, UCSF has the world's biggest fleet. That size fits the scale of the new Medical Center: an 800,000-square-foot, 289-bed facility spanning the equivalent of nearly three football fields. Just a couple of blocks from the San Francisco Bay, the spanking-new hospital comes equipped with all sorts of cutting-edge gear, like autonomous robots.

Where robots roam the hospital floor (pictures)

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Eve is programmed with the Medical Center's floor plan and architecture, so it knows the best routes throughout the hospital. Built by Aethon, of Pittsburgh, these robots are designed to assist humans rather than replace them. UCSF personnel formerly tasked with delivery will be moved into other positions.

"Tissue samples, blood samples need to get from point A to point B very fast. You can't afford to wait for someone to show up," said Ken Goldberg, professor of robotics at University of California at Berkeley. "The robot that never gets distracted, never stops for coffee, could be great for these critical deliveries."

It's in the machine
When most people think of autonomous robots, something like the Roomba vacuum cleaner comes to mind. The shoebox-size disk bumps into furniture and walls as it as it tries to find its way around a room. Eve is far more sophisticated than a Roomba.

It knows every hallway, bench and corner of UCSF's hospital complex, and has been programmed to communicate with six of the building's 20 elevators and hundreds of its doors. Eve also comes equipped with 30 infrared and sonar sensors, one laser and a camera, so that it can tell when someone or something is in front of it.

"Please stand aside," Eve politely says when it confronts such an obstacle.

While UCSF's robots cannot answer commands, they do know 70 phrases and speak in a variety of accents and voices, such as an Australian man or an English woman. They also speak Spanish. For fun, the hospital will dress up the machines in different "skins," such as San Francisco cable , pieces of fruit and possible Disney movie characters like Wall-E and -- yes -- Eve.

"We are humanizing the robots," said Pamela Hudson, UCSF executive director of clinical systems. "We actually had naming contests."

Watch this: Doctors, nurses...and robots

All of UCSF's robots look a bit like miniature L-shaped flatbed trucks -- the flatbeds are then loaded with different types of carts. The kitchen's carts come with shelves to load food trays and the pharmacy's carts have locked drawers that can only be opened using a PIN code and biometrics, such as a nurse's fingerprint. The robots can handle up to 1,000 pounds.

When the robots aren't delivering supplies, they're parked in small charging bays. Most of the robots can work a full day on just four hours of charge. They communicate with each other and the building via the hospital's wireless network.

The robots carry out both scheduled and on-demand tasks. Scheduled tasks include delivering 1,000 meals to patients per day, along with picking up their dirty trays. On-demand tasks include medicine deliveries or running specimens to the lab. To order an on-demand task, hospital staff use a touch-screen computer system to give robots assignments.

Once instructed to deliver something, the robot will slowly back out of its charging bay, announcing that it's "departing now." As the robot approaches closed doors, they automatically swing open. The robot then cruises down the hallway -- quietly humming and beeping -- at the speed an average human walks. The hospital's goal is for each delivery to take 45 minutes or less.

"It's really thinking through 'what's the fastest way I can get to my end point,'" Hudson said.

High-tech hospital
UCSF is integrating other high-tech components into its new hospital. Patient rooms will have a "media wall," a 60-inch flat-screen TV that lets people order room service, send emails, use Skype and watch movies. Doctors can also use the media walls to call up scans and x-rays to show patients.

UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay has three hospitals within one building: Benioff Children's Hospital, Betty Irene Moore Women's Hospital and Bakar Cancer Hospital. Getting from one side of the building to the other can be quite the haul.

Administrators wanted to relieve staff from carrying heavy loads across such long distances, which is why they decided to use robots like Eve. But the robots will also improve efficiency and reliability, said Josh Adler, chief medical officer of UCSF Medical Center.

"They're so much more reliable for delivering things where they need to be on time," Adler said. "That allows our staff to focus on things that people do so well -- caring, decision-making, supporting."