In the News
Healthcare robotics pioneer explains how Aethon made its robots safer and more capable, as well as a common mistake.
Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently interviewed Aldo Zini, president and CEO of Aethon Inc. In addition to developing methodologies to quantify the value of healthcare robotics, Zini owns several patents around medication dispensing technology.
While working on his BS in industrial engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Zini became interested in using automation to make hospitals more efficient.
Zini later obtained a master’s in public management (health systems IT) from Carnegie Mellon University and became vice president of sales and marketing at Automated Healthcare. The company’s ROBOT-Rx was the first robotic medication-dispensing system, and it was acquired by McKesson Corp. for $67 million.
At TechRx, Zini was senior vice president of sales and marketing. NDC Corp. later bought that pharmacy software provider for more than $200 million.
Pittsburgh-based Aethon’s TUG is a mobile autonomous robot with more than 450 installs worldwide.
This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until May 31, 2016. Here’s a preview:
Pransky: How has the TUG developed over the years? Could you describe the different versions or major iterations of the TUG since its beginnings in 2002?
Zini: When we started the development, our goal was to make an affordable, reliable, and safe autonomous mobile robot. Back in 2002/2003, that had not been accomplished yet. There were some mobile robots that existed back then, but they were very expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to build; were technically complex; and really weren’t viable products.
Our goal was to try to simplify and make a robot that was affordable, meaning that it had a good return on investment [ROI]. That was our initial goal, and we set out to develop the robot. There was a lot that we didn’t know and a lot that we had to learn. We probably really didn’t have the first commercial version of the robot until about 2004.
That robot, while it worked OK, had a number of limitations. Some of those limitations had to do with the technology because laser scanners were very expensive back then, and the cost prohibited us from using them. We relied on other sensor modalities—a lidar scanner—that wasn’t as accurate and wasn’t as reliable as a laser scanner.
While we were able to build an affordable robot, it wasn’t as reliable and maybe not even as safe as we would have liked it to be back then, especially for a structured environment such as a hospital.
Pransky: When and what were the modifications to your second iteration?
Zini: There were two modifications we made. One had to do with just making it more reliable and safe. The other was adding functions and features that the market was telling us they wanted to see in a robot.
On the reliability and safety part, we continued to make the software more robust by developing a modified version of simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) with pattern-matching technology. We increased the number of sonars.
As the cost of laser scanners and other component robotic parts starting coming down over time, we were able to integrate more robust sensor modalities along with better navigational software. Those two things really enabled us to raise the bar to another level where the technology became very reliable and very safe.
Even to this day, there are not too many people that have an autonomous mobile robot. It was a very difficult engineering problem we were trying to solve, because this robot had to travel in a hospital—everywhere in the hospital—open doors, ride elevators, and do it 30, 40, 50, sometimes 80, 90 times a day, and do it alongside patients, visitors, doctors, nurses, clinicians, everybody.
We couldn’t afford one mistake. To get it to that level of reliability, accuracy and safety with that many people overseeing it, it literally took us about another four years, to at least 2008, maybe even 2009, to implement the technology.
Pransky: What new developments for TUGs are you planning for? And what new challenges are you facing?