They look something like glorified filing cabinets, but the robots delivering laboratory samples at the University of Kentucky Medical Center have become a real time-saver for staff.
The two robots, whose brand name is TUG, have been navigating the hospital hallways since last summer, carrying blood, urine and other patient specimens from the draw station in the Kentucky Clinic to the laboratory at UK Hospital, where they are processed.
Before the robots came, Pamela Lee-Miller, laboratory coordinator for the Kentucky Clinic, said she used to have two staff members walking the milelong trip throughout the day.
"Every 20 minutes we would take somebody out of the line of patient care and have them transport patient specimens," she said.
Because there were fewer people working in the draw station, many of the 250 to 300 patients it serves each day had to wait longer to have blood drawn.
"Often, we would have patients lined down the hall waiting to be stuck," Lee-Miller said, but that's rare nowadays.
"I was a skeptic," she said. "I can see that it really makes a difference in the patient wait time."
On a specified schedule, staff members load the robot's cabinet with trays of samples, then press a green button telling the TUG to go.
"Thank you," an automated female voice responds, and then the machine sets off.
The robot announces each movement with statements such as "turning around," "crossing hallway" or "entering elevator, please stand aside."
If humans aren't waiting for the elevators, the robot calls them itself using radio signals. If it ends up on an elevator with people, it waits for them to get off first before heading to the sixth floor.
"They're kind of careful not to take over the elevators," said Barbara Bush, laboratory manager for the hospital.
The robots get some interesting looks from patients and families.
If someone steps in front of it, TUG stops quickly and won't move again until the person blocking its path is out of the way.
Sometimes, the robot's work is interrupted by a person who refuses to move or by equipment parked in its way. When that happens, staff back in the labs can check what's going on through a video camera mounted on the front of the robot.
A numeric code is required to open the cabinet, which prevents unauthorized people from tampering with the samples inside.
Between runs, the robots dock themselves at charging stations to await their next trip.
Bush said the robots have standardized the time between when a specimen is collected and when it is tested in the lab.
"They don't stop and smoke cigarettes or call mom or drink coffee" on their way from the clinic to the lab, she said.
For now, UK is leasing the robots from Aethon Inc., the Pittsburgh-based company that markets them. The hospital pays $18,000 a year to lease each machine, plus $3,000 for maintenance, Bush said.
When the leases are up this summer, UK will either renew its lease or buy the robots outright, she said.
"We have been extremely happy," she said.
The actual robot is small, just over 7 inches tall and 20 inches wide, but cabinets of varying sizes can be mounted on top of it depending on its use.
Other hospitals have used the robots to transport pharmaceuticals, linens, supplies and cafeteria trays.
Aethon, which was founded in 2001, says on its Web site that TUG is being used in more than 100 hospitals throughout the country.