Robotic telepresence remains one of those technologies that is always lingering just on the horizon; it's going to change everything, the futurists say, just as soon as it gets here. But while several clever telerobotics solutions have come to market in recent years (Vgo and Double Robotics for instance), no solution has yet been both sophisticated and user-friendly enough for the mainstream. These robots -- designed to give a remote human operator control of a mobile surrogate robot so that, for instance, a company manager in Chicago can virtually tour a factory floor in Topeka -- allow users to move around an environment and interact with people and objects on the other side of the city, country, or planet. But for the most part, telerobots remain high-priced toys.
Bedford, Mass.,-based iRobot (IRBT) believes it's finally changed that. The company -- perhaps best known for its adorable, automated floor-sweeping Roomba robots -- has a long, established record of understanding its customer, adequately maturing its technologies, and producing the right solution for its end users, whether that user is an immaculately clean apartment-dweller or a Navy explosives ordnance disposal specialist disarming IEDs in Afghanistan. (iRobot builds those robots too.) Earlier this year iRobot quietly rolled out its RP-VITA telemedicine robot in seven North American hospitals (six in the U.S. and one in Mexico City), and how they are received in the hospital environment could spell big things not only for iRobot and its technology partnerInTouch Health, but for telerobotics at large.
"We've been building robots and working on the remote presence problem for well over a decade, and the one thing we have come to realize is that the difference between a cool prototype and a product is huge," says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. In RP-VITA, Angle says, the company has finally developed a real telerobotics product, and if it can survive the rigors of the fast-paced, sometimes frenetic hospital environment, there's no reason why robots like RP-VITA couldn't work anywhere. Success for RP-VITA could mark the beginning of a trend.
Telemedicine isn't a bad place to start. Modern medicine has sprawled into an often confusing array of specializations -- currently there are something like 150 different recognized medical specialties and sub-specialties; at the middle of the last century there were roughly a dozen -- and it's here that telemedicine has found a great deal of room for growth. Santa Barbara, Calif.,-based InTouch Health creates interfaces, apps, and remote presence solutions for the health care industry that are now in more than 700 hospitals, allowing doctors -- generally specialists at larger, urban hospitals -- to digitally teleconference themselves to a patient's bedside and converse with both nurses and patients over live audio and video connections.