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Aethon Adds RFID to Robotic Hospital Helpers

Designed to roam a facility and locate tagged assets, the Homer can also be used to retrieve and deliver them.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 22, 2007A Tug is a hospital robot created by Aethon, a Pittsburgh firm comprised of technology and software experts with deep experience working in the health-care field. The company developed the Tug to perform such mundane but vital tasks as retrieving and delivering drugs or test specimens. Hospital staff are often too busy to perform such tasks without taking time away from patient care.

Now, six of the more than 34 hospitals already using Tugs—including The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, as well as Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C.—are testing an RFID-enabled version of the robot, dubbed Homer. This model performs the same jobs as a Tug, but also carries an RFID interrogator used to locate RFID-tagged assets as it moves around a hospital.

Several hospitals are testing the Homer, an RFID-enabled version of Aethon's Tug robot.
"Other companies have RFID solutions that will find assets," says Peter Seiff, Aethon's vice president of consumer relations. "But once you do that, you still need someone to go get the asset and deliver it. So we figure, why not use [our system] for both tasks? The real beauty of what we do is not just track assets, but also recover them." To enable this, Homer has a container in which assets can be placed for delivery.

According to Seiff, Aethon's platform can be a more cost-efficient asset-tracking solution than others on the market. Rather than installing an infrastructure of fixed-position RFID readers, he says, hospitals can purchase a number of Homer units designed for asset-tracking and retrieving applications, and install a reader on each Tug they already use. Hospitals can dispatch Homers to inventory tagged assets in a given area at set times each day—particularly late at night, when most tagged equipment is stored. By mounting a reader and antenna on a Tug already being used as a courier for drugs or test specimens, hospitals can perform ad hoc searches for tagged assets as the Tug makes its rounds throughout the day, by collecting tag IDs and location data of any tags it happens to pass.

The robot—either Tug or Homer—finds its way around a hospital through the use of a facility map saved to its memory. Each model can operate for up to eight hours on a battery pack, and each must be docked on a recharger at night. Once docked, the robot recognizes its location because the dock is programmed into its memory as a home base. When called into duty, the robot receives instructions telling it where to go in the hospital. It then leaves the dock and heads for a patient's room or some other designated site, which it locates on its internal map.

All the while, the machine logs the direction and distance it travels. It can also discern which floor it is on at any given time, by tracking its beginning location and the change in floors it has made throughout its journey. The robot establishes a Wi-Fi link to a control box inside a car in each elevator bank, designated for use by Tugs or Homers so they can summon the car and ride it to a desired floor.

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