MIT and Boston Dynamics team up on ‘Dr. Spot,’ a robot for remote COVID-19 vital sign measurement

One of the most consistent pieces of advice from health organizations about COVID-19 has been that everyone do their utmost to limit contact with people who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. That’s difficult in a hospital setting, where medical professionals regularly have to take patient vital sign measurements in order to provide proper care. But a new collaborative effort by MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Dynamics and others might provide a way to get those measurements without putting front-line healthcare workers directly in harms’ way.

In a new academic paper, MIT researchers describe how they developed and used “Dr. Spot,” a customized version of Boston Dynamics’ four-legged, dog-like robot, to be able to make use of contactless vital sign monitoring equipment for taking measurements. Dr. Spot is also outfitted with a tablet to make it possible for doctors and nurses to have “face-to-face” interviews with patients while they conduct exams. This hyperlocal version of telemedicine has the potential to not only reduce the risk of exposure for medical personnel, but also drastically reduce use of personal protective equipment, conserving resources for when they’re needed most.

Dr. Spot is able to measure vital signs including skin temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate and blood oxygen saturation, all at once. These are all key metrics that healthcare professionals track when determining the progress of COVID-19 in a patient. For the purposes of this study, Dr. Spot was deployed in a hospital setting, but only took measurements from health volunteer research subjects in order to validate the accuracy of its measurement and sensor equipment.

This is just a study to provide some proof as to the potential of actually deploying Dr. Spot or a similar system in an actual clinical study, but the results are promising. Remote vital monitoring isn’t a new concept, but many other systems for accomplishing this require adapting the physical locations where patients are treated to accommodate that kind of distanced measurement, whereas this one could be deployed much more flexibly in existing hospitals and clinics.