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DHMC deploys robots to help in COVID surge

Damien Fisher

As the staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon was planning for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases last spring, some worried about delivering care for patients in isolation.

“I hate the idea of having to minimize contact, but in certain circumstances that’s the right thing to do,” said Dr. Meredith MacMartin, medical director at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative & Hospice Care.

Patients in isolation are already provided iPads on mobile stands so they can visit with family members virtually, or meet with their care team. But bringing tablets into patient rooms required at least one staffer wearing personal protective equipment.

There’s where the robots come into the picture.

MacMartin started talking to an engineer friend who put her in touch with James Cole-Henry, a mechanical engineer at Fujifilm Dimatix in Lebanon. He is coach of the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center FIRST Robotics Team #95, known as the Grasshoppers.

The Grasshoppers are composed of students from Hartford High School in Vermont as well as Hanover High School, Lebanon High School, Mascoma Regional High School and home-schoolers.

Cole-Henry and the Grasshoppers worked quickly to develop the robots, which can bring the iPad stands into the patient rooms, with minimal contact between the patient and staff.

“This was an extremely fast product development cycle, just like the FIRST Robotics Competitions we participate in every year,” Cole-Henry said.

Cole-Henry and the team worked through several prototypes before settling on the final design, a 26-inch by 19-inch, triangle-shaped robot operated by a remote control. The robot can move at a pace of 5 feet per second and features a magnet that attaches to the metal iPad stands.

Cole-Henry said part of the challenge for the team was to develop a robot that would not spread COVID-19. That meant a tight design with no gaps and no porous materials to trap germs.

“The robot has to be able to be easily cleaned after each use,” Cole-Henry said.

With the help of local businesses, the team was able to put together the robots for DHMC.

The Grasshoppers’ robot design, bill of materials, and code have all been left as open-source, meaning others can use the work done by this team. Dartmouth-Hitchcock is already planning to use the robot and iPad system throughout its health care network.