March 25, 1997 in Nation/World

Operation Rudy On A Roll Robot Gets Tryout For Delivery Job At Sacred Heart

By The Spokesman-Review
 

He’s a smooth operator, a squatty guy who isn’t afraid to throw around all 574 pounds of his weight.

He hangs out near drinking fountains, carries up to 200 pounds of drugs and says “please” and “thank you” in the deep honey voice of a TV anchor.

“I am about to move,” Rudy the robot announces to no one in particular at Sacred Heart Medical Center. “Please stand clear.”

“Awesome, isn’t it?” says Brigitte Palmer, assistant director of operations in the pharmacy. “It’s just such a manly voice.”

The hospital’s newest pharmacy employee doesn’t need health insurance, works 24 hours a day and earns just $6.50 an hour.

Rudy moves through hospital hallways with the help of infrared sensors and a computerized map of the hospital’s floor plans wired into his circuitry. Special strips on the ceiling help him find his way. He’s been programmed to find 27 locations.

This robot is straight out of “Star Trek” - the original version. He looks like a small rolling refrigerator with flashing amber lights, turn signals and flashy blue paneling.

He carries his goods in a locked cargo bin that can be opened only with a security code.

People step back and stare. They ask questions. They wrinkle their foreheads.

“How cute,” says one visitor.

“Now isn’t that amazing?” adds another. “Does he talk, too?”

“Bucket of bolts,” jokes a doctor.

Rudy can avoid a protruding phone book in a single turn. Foil a trickster doctor stepping in his way. Deliver lunch.

“He brought sandwiches, drinks, a vegetable platter,” says Bob Piper, a pharmacy technician who works mainly in the sixth-floor pharmacy office.

Rudy, leased from the HelpMate Robot Equipment Co. for $6.50 an hour, started work officially last week. He’ll stay for a three-month trial period, and then be evaluated.

The robot isn’t replacing any humans. Administrators hope Rudy will save staff time. Instead of running errands, employees can let the robot do the walking - or rolling.

For 16 hours a day, Rudy delivers drugs and IV supplies from floor to floor. For eight hours, Rudy carts around charts and other medical records. He might eventually start working for other departments.

Right now, Rudy’s kind of a celebrity at Sacred Heart. He gives tours to Cub Scouts. Departments ask to meet the robot.

“Looks like Tom Selleck,” cracks Larry Keyser, a physician’s assistant, as he stepped off the elevator, almost into what would be Rudy’s arms. “Is this the same robot that freaked out on the elevator?”

Yeah, but Rudy rarely freaks out. He only lost it on the elevator - spinning in a circle repeatedly - because the elevator had been turned off for cleaning.

And sure, there was the other time, when somebody hit one of Rudy’s three emergency stop buttons and didn’t turn him back on with the proper code. He ran into a wall and repeatedly stated: “Please remove the obstacle. My way is blocked.”

“He was red from embarrassment,” Palmer says.

Rudy’s programmed to deliver his load and return to his pharmacy base, to make a one-way trip, or to make stops along a one-way trip to another department.

If the white contact strips on Rudy’s bumpers and corners hit anything, he backs up and moves around it. An antenna on his head calls his special elevator, which he rides alone.

The robot was named “Rudy” after a staff contest. One person suggested “Bo.” Another suggested “3242” - a play on the R2-D2 robot from “Star Wars” and the pharmacy’s phone extension.

An employee nominated “Rudy” after her Rottweiler dog. Most along Rudy’s path say the name fits.

“It’s got a man’s name, I think, because he doesn’t ask for directions,” says Marlene Schuyler, a sixth-floor nurse.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


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