The robotic delivery of hospital meals

“TUG” robots at UC San Francisco Medical Center’s newest hospital take on a boring task—meal delivery.

You’ll have to forgive staff and visitors walking the halls of the new University of California San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay if they sometimes feel like they are in a sci-fi movie.

The hospital, which opened Feb. 1, has a lot of high-tech gadgets. The most visible are robots that traverse the hallways day and night. The TUGs, a fleet of 25 autonomous robotic units, tap into a Wi-Fi network and use GPS to maneuver themselves around the building as they deliver everything from meds to meals.

Six of them are dedicated to the hospital’s foodservice department, which is overseen by UC San Francisco Medical Center’s Director of Nutrition Service Dan Henroid. “Robots are certainly not new, especially for the really big hospitals,” Henroid says. “But they are usually designed to be very big capacity and they typically run in the bowels of the hospital.”

By contrast, Mission Bay’s TUGs virtually have the run of the place, because they don’t run on any kind of a track. By taking on the most menial and boring of jobs—transporting items from Point A to B—they free up employees to focus on more important tasks related to patient care, Henroid says.

“Our tugs are making about 100 trips a day, running about 30 miles in all,” he says.

They use what Henroid calls the ‘pitch-catch’ model.
“We load them at the kitchen on the first floor, and then send them to designated drop-off points on [various] floors,” he says. “Our team members meet them at that point and take the meals the rest of the way.”

According to Aethon’s website—the Pittsburgh-based tech firm that creates the TUG robots—160 hospitals in the U.S. have 450 TUGs. The 25 robots at the Mission Bay-based hospital makes up the largest fleet of TUGs in the country, Henroid says.

In addition to foodservice, six other hospital departments, including the pharmacy and environmental services department, use the robots.

Although the TUGs in Henroid’s foodservice department do not enter patient care areas, other TUGs are designed to go directly to spots such as nurses’ stations to deliver their goods.

The TUGs aren’t exactly artificial intelligence, although you might think that if you were to, say, try to help a Tug along its way by guiding it into an elevator.

“Please don’t push TUG into the elevator” is one of 70 phrases the robots have in their verbal repertoire. They also are programmed to be polite—if you stand in front of one, it may say, “waiting for clear path,” instead of “step aside, bozo.”

They also have the ability to communicate with six of the hospital’s 20 elevators and they can open doors almost anywhere in the building.

I can remember, in the early 1990s, visiting Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, where some of the first robotic units in a hospital were being deployed. At that time, their use in foodservice was limited to delivering late night trays. But Henroid’s TUGs—who are all named after various fruits, such as apple, grape and banana—deliver all meals.

The TUGs make perfect sense for a hospital with a room service program, where meals are being ordered at all hours. Unlike a human “runner,” these babies never get tired and they never complain about their assignments.

But they aren’t about to completely replace humans, at least in foodservice. “Once the robots reach their destination, our team members must decide which meals get delivered first,” Henroid says. “There is still a lot of human intervention, that human contact with the patients.”

Of course, in any kind of foodservice environment, uniforms are essential to tell the employees from the visitors, and Henroid plans to treat his TUGs no differently, and says he plans to outfit them with colorful “skins” that would reflect their fruity names.