Business Beyond Tomorrow

Pricy robots 'Tug' hospital supplies

Robots 'tugging' hospitals forward

Traveling 115 miles, roving robots make their way around the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, transporting medication, linens and medical waste.

"The hospital is set up almost as a virtual railroad. … If they encounter an obstacle along the way, that's when they use their various sensors, laser, sonar and infrared to navigate around those items and continue on their path," said Brian Herriot, director of Mission Bay operations planning at UCSF Medical Center.

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The hospital purchased 25 of the "Tug" robots, manufactured by Pittsburgh-based manufacturer Aethon, for $3.5 million, Herriot said in an email Wednesday. It spent another $2.5 million retrofitting the bots and the hospital, allowing them to travel freely, he said. A handful of other hospitals also have purchased robots.

Based on current employee pay and benefits, Herriot estimates that the hospital will at least break even on that investment within two years.

The Tug robot by Aethon
Source: Aethon

Plus, the robots could reduce workplace injuries, which the hospital doesn't factor into that equation, Herriot said. Soiled linen carts, for instance, can weigh several hundred pounds, Herriot told CNBC in an interview.

Another security measure can require a code and a biometric fingerprint scan access pharmaceuticals transported by the Tug, to according to Aethon's website.

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Despite retrofits at the hospital, however, elevator and fire-door maintenance can get in the way of the Tug robots' path, Herriot told CNBC.

While the Tugs need four hours of charging time, plus charges between deliveries, having 25 robots could make that downtime less of an inconvenience, Herriot said.