A robot avatar for physicians that can navigate hospital corridors on its own has received the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The RP-VITA robot represents the "smartest" telepresence robot that physicians can control remotely to interact with patients in hospitals hundreds or thousands of miles away. Onboard software "brains" from iRobot — the company that makes the self-driving vacuum "Roombas" — allow the new robot to obey movement orders without requiring direct human control.
"Previous generations have had to be driven," said Charlie Vaida, a public relations manager for iRobot. "This one you can operate on your iPad by tapping on patient Joe Smith in room 32, and it's going to go there while avoiding people and obstacles."
One of the RP-VITAs showed off its navigational skills by wandering around the iRobot booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. The clever machine represents a joint project between InTouch Health, a seller of telepresence robots, and iRobot.
Physicians can open the robot's app on their iPad to see an electronic map of the hospital and simply direct the robot to their next patient as they study the person's electronic medical record. RP-VITA carries cameras, sensors and a touch-screen display, including an LCD screen "head" that can show the face of the physician controlling the robot.
"It's the only autonomous telepresence robot for hospitals," Vaida told TechNewsDaily."And it's the first one to be cleared by the FDA."
The new FDA clearance allows the RP-VITA to help monitor patients before, during and after surgical operations. It also permits the robot's use in critical care assessments and examinations.
But smart robots don't come cheap. The RP-VITA would cost between $4,000 and $6,000 a month for hospitals to operate, according to the Boston Globe. Hospitals would have to weigh the costs against the possible benefits of allowing the world's top specialists to consult on their patients face-to-face.
RP-VITA will likely go on sale within several months, Vaida said. The robot represents the first commercial product from iRobot's remote presence group — a unit set up to help the company expand beyond its household cleaning robots and bomb-disabling robots for the U.S. military.
A similar robot could allow retailers to remotely help customers in stores, or give security guards a remote helper to patrol large buildings from a central command center.
"You can imagine this kind of technology would be really cool for retail or security," Vaida said.
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