Photo: Shutterstock

Soon hospital beds will take their own baths

Robot technology and automation Computer calculations Data analysis IT systems Production and management
Researchers and hospital employees are developing robots that can transport hospital beds to an automatic washing facility without being touched by human hands.

At Odense University Hospital (OUH), they are in the process of solving an assignment that can map new territory for using the ‘Internet of Things’—and which is also a concrete tool for streamlining hospital operations, and bring the new hospital which is currently under construction into the future.

In collaboration with the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), OUH, and the Danish company Technicon, researchers from DTU Compute are developing an automated process for transporting hospital beds at the hospital when they need cleaning. Cleaning hospital beds is a time-consuming and cumbersome task, but by using small robots, it will be possible to move beds from the wards to a central bed-washing facility and back again completely automatically.

The challenge, however, is not to create even more patients when the robots have to negotiate hospital corridors populated by doctors, patients, and relatives in an environment where emergency and chaotic situations regularly occur.

Big savings potential

“Our focus is on wireless communication and safety. Mobile robots have been around for some time, but it’s difficult when there are so many safety considerations. We must ensure that the robots are fully integrated, and that they stop immediately when necessary,” explains Professor Paul Pop from DTU Compute, who is the scientific coordinator for the project.

“The robots must be equipped with sensors. For example cameras, or a type of bumper which, when it registers something nearby, brings the robot to a halt. How this might work in practice is something we are still working to clarify,” he explains.

At OUH, Academic Officer Erik Møller Nielsen is looking forward to seeing the results of the research when the new hospital opens its doors in 2022:

“At a hospital, the situation is that each bed needs washing every time a patient is discharged, and at the moment the beds are cleaned by hand up on the wards. We wash several hundred beds every day, which equates to about nine FTEs,” he says.

Robots must act ethically

Introducing robots for cleaning hospital beds promises big savings for taxpayers—but also major challenges:

“DTU researchers are having to develop and formulate all the rules for how the robots must react and navigate. No one, of course, must be run over when the beds are being transported to and from the wards. When a trauma patient arrives at the hospital in an emergency situation, everyone, both patients and staff, must stand to one side. This is natural for people, but something which the robots have to learn; they need to be able to make ethical decisions when faced by situations where accidents can happen, and this is, of course, a big challenge,” says Erik Møller Nielsen, and refers to some of the complex algorithms which self-driving cars have been equipped with to teach them to react appropriately in situations where it is impossible to avoid a collision.

It is important to ensure there is absolutely no risk of collisions in a hospital, and therefore an extremely cautious approach is being taken in developing the bed robots. First, they will be tested in the hospital basement, where there are no patients or relatives in the corridors, but only staff. However, the goal is that one day we will see hospital beds rolling along the corridors on their own when they decide it is time to take a bath.

“I expect we will come to see more and more robots in situations where employing people is too expensive, or where the task is too dangerous. The interaction between humans and robots is very interesting, and this is just one example,” says Professor Paul Pop.