II. Autonomous Robots

Jeremy Gottlieb: Author
David Leech Anderson: Author

Autonomous medical robots are able to operate intelligently and adapt to their environment without direct human supervision. In particular, they should be able to perform their duties in an environment that might be changing, and without a person sitting at a bank of controls directing their activities.


The U.S. Defense Department funds cutting-edge research through DARPA. Several times DARPA has offered a $2 million prize to the team that developed the fastest autonomous robotic car that could navigate a cross-country course. Below Wired Magazine provides video of the winning team in 2007. In the home consumer market, IRobot has already sold millions of robots to everyday consumers. The most popular is the Rhoomba which is an autonomous vacuum cleaner, seen in action below (with a non-human passenger on board).

2007 DARPA Challenge

IRobot Roomba


Delivery services

One of the things that nurses in a hospital spend a lot of time doing is giving medications to patients. This requires the nurses to keep track of which patient gets which medicines and what the dosages are. It also requires them to keep track of when the patients have received their medications. Finally, this information must be transmitted across multiple shifts of nurses without error. Wouldn't it be great if there were an automated way to keep track of all this information?

The TUG automated delivery system is able to deliver medications, both scheduled and on-demand, to patients and keep track of all the information about the delivery of these medications. It can also deliver meals and other items, such as extra pillows and blankets. Using a map of the hospital it has stored, it can navigate hallways and elevators to get to whatever room it is summoned or sent to.

Delicate treatments

Another use of autonomous robots is in delivering treatments to delicate locations. For example, if we want a treatment to be delivered to the surface of the heart, this requires either open heart surgery, which is dangerous and traumatic for the patient, or the insertion of some sort of needle near the heart, which can also be dangerous. The HeartLander is an experimental robot under development at Carnegie Mellon University which can be inserted near the heart. It then finds its own way to the heart, adheres to the heart's surface, and autonomously finds the location for delivering treatment.