A robotics company in the heart of Texas’ most unabashedly weird city has made it its mission to cut down the time that nurses spend fetching supplies, allowing them more availability where they are most needed, in the operating room. With a $2.1 million seed investment led by Silicon Valley-based True Ventures, Diligent Robotics is looking to perfect and deploy its autonomous hospital service robot.
Previously, the Diligent Robotics team had been funded primarily by a $725,000 grant provided by the National Science Foundation for Small Business Innovation Research. The droid that they have produced falls under the category of robotics known as autonomous mobile manipulation, in which a robotic arm is mounted to a mobile platform to perform a specific task. This is a field which has historically proven difficult to navigate, especially when the area of application is a semi-controlled environment such as a hospital. But that is precisely the challenge that Diligent Robotics has taken on.
Co-founders Andrea Thomaz and Vivian Chu had the medical application in mind when they conceived the first iteration of their autonomous mobile manipulator drone, Poli. The primary use for Poli, which has been tested in several Austin-area hospitals, is supply fetching, which also means navigating crowded, often-hectic hallways with relative grace.
As Thomaz states in the video, nearly 30% of a nurse’s time is spent doing tasks that Poli was designed specifically to carry out.
The average nurse spends up to 28% of their time performing non-value-added labor, per various studies, Thomaz told EEEI. Our goal is to help nurses make full use of their specialized skills, letting robots handle tedious fetching tasks and other routine work.
Poli utilizes machine learning algorithms that will allow it to better learn how to navigate unforeseen conditions and to operate more quickly when seeking out and retrieving medical supplies. Thomaz and Chu are both doctors themselves, and have varying amounts of expertise in robotics and machine learning that make them highly qualified to advance medical droid applications.
By most accounts, they are leading the pack in that respect.
We build the artificial intelligence that enables service robots to collaborate with people and adapt to dynamic human environments, Dr. Vivian Chu said. Diligent Robotics is delivering a new class of hospital service robots by building a solution with manipulation capabilities that can autonomously navigate a hospital to perform collaborative tasks with nursing staff.
Most autonomous drones designed for medical purposes lack the arm that qualifies it as a mobile manipulator, which is perhaps Poli’s most valuable asset aside from its ability to learn human-robot interaction. Other companies nationwide are working on similar projects. Yet, those who have observed Chu and Thomaz closely understand that their unique blend of expertise, smarts, and medical background render Diligent Robotics as one of the leaders in mobile manipulation for medical purposes.
“The key long-term challenge here is creating robots that learn and adapt to the infinite variations of human interaction,” said Rohit Sharma, venture partner at True Ventures and board member for Diligent Robotics. “Andrea and Vivian are big thinkers who love tinkering and exploring the hardest challenges posed by learning machines. They have the right combination of expertise and drive to solve this problem.”