Boston Dynamics' Spot is turning up at hospitals like the harbinger of doom we expected it to be

In fighting the pandemic, Spot has finally found a role that fits.

Since its inception several years ago, the nimble quadruped known as Spot has seemed an eerie anachronism, like an out-of-place traveler from some machine-dominated future we have yet to really confront. We’ve watched it hone its skills, learn to cooperate, and even have a little fun here and there, lauding its abilities and chuckling nervously all the while about its undeniable creepiness. Its applications seemed simultaneously practical and inconceivable — Spot can perform, no doubt about that, but does it really have a place alongside humans just yet?

But now a period of darkness has descended on Earth, and suddenly, Spot has never fit in so well. Boston Dynamics, the company behind the robo-dog, announced today that it’s been testing its technology at a local hospital to assist frontline healthcare workers treating COVID-19. The bot can facilitate telemedicine check-ins to cut down on carers’ exposure to the virus, carrying an iPad and two-way radio on its back so doctors can speak with patients from another location.

The company is open-sourcing its toolkit so other facilities can try out robotic solutions, too, whether that be with Spot or another mobile robot.

See Spot help — Boston Dynamics’ now-famous creation went on sale for the first time last fall after years in development. It’s poised for all sorts of field tasks that could help keep human workers out of dangerous environments, like construction sites or disaster relief areas. But, this is the first time we’re really seeing how beneficial this support could be.

So far, that means helping out with teledoc responsibilities at Bringham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, where it's been in tests since late March. Even on this small scale, that could be pretty impactful for the people who are working in constant exposure to the deadly virus. “For every intake shift completed by a teleoperated robot shift, at least one healthcare provider is able to reduce their interaction with the disease,” the company wrote in a blog post.

With current protocols at local hospitals, patients suspected to have COVID-19 are asked to line up in tents outside to answer questions and get initial assessments for temperature. This process requires up to five medical staff, placing those individuals at high risk of contracting the virus. With the use of a mobile robot, hospitals are able to reduce the number of necessary medical staff at the scene and conserve their limited PPE supply. Through an iPad and a two-way radio mounted on a robot’s back, healthcare providers can video conference with patients as they remotely direct the mobile robot through lines of sick individuals in the tents. With this configuration, doctors are able to speak with patients from afar, possibly even from their own homes. For every intake shift completed by a teleoperated robot shift, at least one healthcare provider is able to reduce their interaction with the disease.

By making it all open source, medical centers with the means to do so can more effectively add robots to their workforce based on Boston Dynamics' designs, hopefully to ease some of the burden on workers. The company has also been in talks with Canadian firm Clearpath Robotics.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement, though, the company notes. These systems will be more helpful if they could also take vital signs or decontaminate surfaces, which could be done by attaching UV-C light to its back. Boston Dynamics is looking into all of this.

“We have been in dialogue with researchers who use thermal camera technology to measure body temperature and calculate respiratory rate,” Boston Dynamics says. “We’ve also applied externally-developed logic to externally-mounted RGB cameras to capture changes in blood vessel contraction to measure pulse rate. We are evaluating methods for measuring oxygen saturation.”

Good boy — That Boston Dynamics is being unselfish with its technology during such a critical time is a testament to its commitment to making products that can actually help humanity. Right now, we all need to be pooling our resources to make whatever difference we can, and there's no place that's more important than in the healthcare sector. We may be too far into this pandemic for initiatives such as this to make a huge impact, but there's no telling what these designs and trials in the field could mean for fighting future outbreaks.

Boston Dynamics may never be able to shed Spot's (undeserved) reputation as a symbol of end-times dystopia, especially now that its units may be swooping into triage centers like the robotic horsemen of the apocalypse, but we see you Spot, and we appreciate you.