Forth Valley Royal Hospital to use robot 'workers'
A hospital in Scotland is to become the first in the UK to use a fleet of robots to carry out day-to-day tasks.
The robots will carry clinical waste, deliver food, clean the operating theatre and dispense drugs.
They are currently undergoing final tests ahead of the August opening of the new £300m Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Stirlingshire.
The robots will have their own dedicated network of corridors underneath the hospital.
NHS Forth Valley chairman Ian Mullen said the new hospital would be "packed full of design features to improve patient care and improve the life of staff".
The robots I saw look like forklift trucks.
However, where you would expect to see a driver there is a rotating laser beam, which it uses to find its way around.
The robot carries all the items you would expect a porter to move: food, linen, dirty linen, clinical waste.
There are separate robots for the dirty tasks and the clean tasks.
That's very important from an infection control point of view.
There are other robots, which I did not see, which perform tasks such as cleaning the operating theatre floors.
They will also have a completely automated robotic pharmacy.
This is the first in the UK where the robots will sort, label and dispense the drugs.
He added: "Members of staff will use a hand-held PDA to call up the robot to move meal trays, or linen, or whatever.
"The robot will come up in the service lift by itself, pick up the item and go back into the lift."
Tom McEwen, the project manager for manufacturer Serco, said a series of pre-programmed routes would be set out for the robots to follow.
"The robots will follow the system using a series of laser beams which will tell it exactly where it is," he explained.
Computers on board the robots will be able to tell doors to open, and sensors will tell the robots to stop if anything - or anyone - is in the way.
One of the most valuable aspects of using robots is in controlling infection.
"Traditionally clean and dirty tasks are carried out by the same person," infection control nurse Lesley Shepherd said.
"Here, you'll have the robots that do dirty tasks, so they may take dirty linen or clinical waste away, and you'll have robots that do clean tasks, such as bringing meals and clean linen to patients.
"They have separate lifts so there's no way they can cross, which is great."
Other robot models will clean theatre floors and even dispense drugs at the pharmacy.
Managers said the robots would not replace humans, but would free up more time for staff to spend with patients.
They will also have to keep at least one human on standby, should any of the robots break down.