Robots lend a hand during the pandemic

  • Noah Robinson, a patient at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, visits with Dr. Samantha House via an iPad delivered by robot to his room in an undated photograph. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the device allows clinicians to communicate and monitor patients remotely and for patients to stay connected with friends and family since visitation is structly limited. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2020 7:08:11 PM
Modified: 12/6/2020 7:08:09 PM

LEBANON — As the first surge of COVID-19 cases began in the early spring, Dr. Meredith MacMartin and her colleagues in palliative care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center wondered how to ensure that patients could stay in close touch with their families and care providers while minimizing the risk of infection.

Then, MacMartin, medical director at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative and Hospice Care, saw a link on her Twitter feed that seemed to present a solution — robots carrying tablets such as iPads to patients’ rooms for them to use to speak with loved ones as well as their providers.

Having robots ferry the devices would reduce the need for clinicians to don the necessary protective equipment to enter a patients room, conserving the equipment as well as the clinicians’ time.

MacMartin reached out to an engineer friend, Rich Kaszeta, and asked, “how hard would this be?” His response was “not that hard,” she said.

Kaszeta put her in touch with James Cole-Henry, a mechanical engineer at Lebanon-based Fujifilm Dimatix who is also head coach for the Grasshoppers, the FIRST robotics team at the Hartford Area Career Technical Center. Cole-Henry then involved current students and alumni to help outline the problem and develop the model.

“One of my students came up with the idea to use magnets,” Cole-Henry said in a video call. “I was a little embarrassed. At work I’m like Mr. Magnet.”

The robots first deployed in patient rooms in the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth beginning in September, Cole-Henry said. The design they came up with after several iterations is triangular with wheels and uses magnets to connect to a black stand with a long arm holding an iPad. It is operated using a controller similar to that used for video games. MacMartin said that even though she’s not a gamer, she found the controllers to be “pretty user-friendly.”

The engineers worked together remotely for the most part. Grasshopper Machine Werks, a machine shop that Cole-Henry co-owns in Enfield, served as home base for the project.

MacMartin, who said developing robots wasn’t on her 2020 bingo card, found herself walking around DHMC with a tape measure in order to be able to tell Cole-Henry and his team how much space they had to work with.

“It’s been really fun to talk with people who are very smart about machines,” she said.

Challenges for the design included ensuring that it would be easy to clean and that it could safely navigate around the hospital without hurting people, Cole-Henry said.

During the development, Cole-Henry said the project gave him and the students and alumni participants a way to help address the ongoing pandemic. Before MacMartin approached him with the project, he said he had been frustrated that the best way he could help was by staying home and away from others.

Being able to develop the robots for the hospital “felt so much better than doing nothing,” he said.

The robotics team alumni who, because of the pandemic, didn’t have technical internships this summer were especially grateful for the opportunity to develop their skills, Cole-Henry said.

Due to relatively low numbers of patients with COVID-19 at DHMC, the robots haven’t been needed as much as MacMartin thought might be the case early on in the pandemic. They may see greater use as cases of COVID-19 increase. Dartmouth-Hitchcock will be using iPads and telehealth carts in the emergency department and at regional hospitals to augment care and for critical care consultation for patients with COVID-19, according to a news release.

There’s promise for the devices beyond COVID-19, MacMartin said. They could be useful in reducing the risk of infection for patients with compromised immune systems, such as those receiving bone marrow transplants, by reducing the number of people who enter their room, she said.

“I do think there’s some other really interesting ways we might be able to use these to benefit patients, protect them and protect staff,” she said.

Video technology has helped family members of patients in the intensive care unit to be able to see their loved one and the care providers while they aren’t able to visit in person, she said.

Like Cole-Henry, MacMartin said that teamwork it took to create the robots was a bright spot during what has largely been a period of isolation.

“It’s been really nice to feel the sense of collaboration and support with our community about it,” she said, noting that several local companies chipped in materials and time. Being able to “pool together to use our collective skills and experience to accomplish this, that feels like a pretty big win.”

The code for the robots is open source, so Cole-Henry said he’s hopeful it can be used by other people.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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