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InfoQ Homepage News The Robot Operating System (ROS) Can Make Hospitals Smarter

The Robot Operating System (ROS) Can Make Hospitals Smarter

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The ROSCon 2019 conference kicked off with a keynote from Selina Seah from Changi General Hospital and Morgan Quigley from Open Robotics. In their talk, they outlined the need for robotics and automation in hospitals. To support robotics, the Open Robotics foundation works actively to create tools to support multiple robotics platforms, fleets working together, and tools for QA and simulation.

Currently, and in the future, there will be multiple challenges in healthcare: there is an aging population, a shrinking workforce due to this aging population, and a rising healthcare cost due to people expecting more of their healthcare. This makes the market for automation and assistance in elderly care potentially very large, as it is a skilled trade that requires a long training time (a nurse spends four years in school, and two years on the job, before considered skilled enough). There are challenges in all areas of healthcare, from the walk-in of patients, consulting and treating them, to observing them in both the ward and at home.

To solve the health care problem we have to look at multiple facets. One of them is connecting current systems to robots and medical devices. Another facet relates to the data analytics and intelligence for clinical decision support. Smart facilities support this by creating more data, and the analysis of this data for insight into the health of patients. A big challenge is automating parts of healthcare with robots. One goal is to individualize patient care to provide better support. Seah noted that no healthcare workers will have to be replaced, as we desperately need them. The Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology approaches these challenges in Singapore.

Robotics would allow healthcare workers to increase the amount of clinical work they perform, and will reduce the time spent on dull tasks such as data processing and bringing things (such as drinks) to patients. Tasks that can be automated are packaging medication, ad-hoc delivery of items, and smart actuated beds. Currently used robots are surgery robots, the pepper humanoid robot, which entertains people (and, according to Seah, receives even more attention from patients than nurses; they think the robot is a lot of fun), and gait assessment devices.

In terms of deployment of robotics, having robot fleets from multiple vendors is a big challenge. For different applications, there are different vendors that will be operating in the same space e.g. a meal delivery robot has to go to the same locations as the goods delivery robots. At the moment new companies create useful delivery robots yearly, which ideally a hospital wants to add to their existing fleets in a building.

Every vendor comes with its own traffic editor. In this editor, the hospital has to indicate where robots can drive, and where supporting infrastructure is (e.g. elevators or automatic doors). Open Robotics is creating an open-source traffic editor to make platform-agnostic robot traffic zones, traffic lanes for these robots with an indicated direction of travel, no-go zones, the location of automatic doors, the elevator topology, and the location of walls (which is useful for simulation). The traffic editor will be available later at https://github.com/osrf/traffic-editor.

Fleets from a single vendor can already achieve impressive densities that work well. Robots from the same fleet already keep a large space between them and will queue nicely to go into specific rooms, such as a kitchen. However, multi-vendor fleets do not communicate, which can cause robot traffic jams in elevator lobbies and doorways. Robots will stop and stare at each other until the hospital staff shuts one of them down and moves it out of the way.

Morgan showed that most robotic throughput potential can be reached if the fleet manager API can set paths for robot waypoint control. However, many robotics providers do not have an existing fleet manager, and only support simple commands to start and stop the robots. Open Robotics is working on a multi-fleet federated integration system called FreeFleet. The user can dispatch a robot to a location, and a smart fleet adapter which will then talk to the vendor-specific fleet managers. 

At the moment it takes three years to connect and hook up all interfaces for one fleet of robots when a new platform is deployed. The goal would be to scale automation with a robotics middleware framework. This would connect multi-fleet deployments, and would create packages that are reusable between platforms. Therefore the Open Robotics foundation is creating ROS health. This platform provides secure messages between existing applications, has packages with user interfaces, can handle traffic, has a command-line interface, and contains path planning that can be shared between multiple applications. The benefit is the interoperability of fleets, optimization, and scalability. This package is called the System of Systems Synthesiser (SOSS).

ROS Health includes two types of user interfaces. One is a streaming interface that shows the location of robots from multiple robot fleets. They create this using web sockets. A second user interface is an interface for mobile devices, where nurses can get quick access to data they need for treating patients, and which allows them to give commands to the robots.

Most existing hospital applications are using the HL7 protocol. Here Open Robotics created a layer that can convert messages in this protocol to ROS messages. This means that ROS2 can connect to existing hospital applications using the DDS protocol.

To learn more about ROS for your health supporting robotics, look at the SOSS, HL7 bridge, and RMF scheduling.

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