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Wageless Workers: Robot Porters

A hospital porter is a much-overlooked, but invaluable staff member. They are essentially the beasts of burden for the hospital. Carrying everything from highly sensitive medical data, to trolley loads of towels, medicine carts, chairs, bedding, toiletry and hygiene supplies… literally anything and everything.

They are everywhere in a hospital, keeping places supplied, keeping it running. Working diligently behind the scenes, just fading into the background.

This, is part of the problem. Porters fade into the background so much, that almost anyone can walk into a hospital, through one of the countless unsecured entrance/exits these places require to function efficiently, and pretend to be one, at least for a night.

Porters can sign names in a book, or travel in pairs for sensitive data, but its impossible to know all the new faces in a large facility, and if they look the part, at the end of the day, they will probably be trusted.

Then, when sensitive medical data goes missing, or a transplant organ vanishes, or little fingers help themselves to the pharmacy supplies, heads begin to roll.

There are two options really, to deal with this.

One, a more highly paid specialist can be utilised, to transfer high security items such as medical records or organs. Problematic in the modern cash-strapped hospital.

Two, an alternative to human porters can be utilised; a robot. Expensive initial outlay soon outpaced by the lack of wages, and total trustworthiness.

Option two is gaining traction in recent years, as robotic systems are catching up with requirements, at least in goods portation.


Designed specifically for research institutes, or anywhere blood is analysed, HOSPI robots, the 2002 product of Matsushita Electric Works, transport vials of blood from one workstation to another, perhaps half a complex of buildings away. They automatically analyse the containers on board, so as to try and understand what needs to go where, without being told.

Travelling at 2.2 mph, HOSPI does not use guide trails or laser guidance, having an internal map of the facility, and its current position within it (triangulating with its charging stations for a mini positioning system), using that to work out where to go next. With two separate brains, the auxiliary takes over operation if the main CPU fails. If it runs low on charge, it will hone in on the nearest charging station to recharge itself, and uses a laser based 'radar' system to avoid bumping into humans around itself.

Later models were capable of calling and entering lifts, with remote position monitoring for security (so if someone tried to take a HOSPI off-site, security could intercept). This made possible full-scale practical use at hospitals, and several dozen were ordered around Japan.



HelpMate is a developer, manufacturer and marketer of advanced mobile robotics systems used primarily in hospitals, laboratories and other health-care settings. They make one of the more popular robot porters, somewhat over 150 HelpMate robots have been rented by scores of hospitals in Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States. Purchased outright, the robots cost about $110,000. Most are rented for (US dollars) $4 to $6 an hour - far less than a human would be paid. The average robot runs for 100 hours a week, and rental is $25,000.

Standing 4 feet 6 inches tall and weighing approximately 600 pounds, the HelpMate robot is not something to get in the way of. Fortunately, it is bristling with sensors to help it avoid stationary and moving objects. It calls for lifts, and boards them on its own initiative, and announces when it arrives at its destination, with the cargo it has on board. Working in conjunction with a central hospital computer system, it can tell a closed door to open as it approaches, and can be dispatched by users via an on-board screen and keyboard.


Hospital porters go robotic
Jun 29th 2004

British Council: Hospital robots

Hospital to use robots as porters
28 June 2007

Matsushita Electric Works, Ltd (HOSPI)

Robot Navigation Technology


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