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High-Tech 'TUG' Robots Will Do Heavy Lifting at Mission Bay

Sure, our new hospitals at Mission Bay are high-tech, but did you know we'll have a fleet of robots hauling food, linens, specimens and medications around the facility?

We're bringing in 25 "TUG" robots to transport carts and compartments around the hospitals, so our employees can devote time to something more important: helping and interacting with patients.

The new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay spans more than 600,000 square feet. That's a lot of ground to cover, and TUGs can help bridge the distance. "It's about efficiency: It's not a great use of someone's time to be transporting something from A to B," says Dan Henroid, director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Services for UCSF Medical Center.

"That's more time that we spend in front of the patient," he added. "We want that personal touch as much as possible."

The 25 TUGs will average more than 1,300 trips per day, which translates to about 315 hours of travel over 481 miles.

What is a TUG?

A TUG is an autonomous mobile robot made specifically for hospitals by Aethon, a company based in Pittsburgh. It uses a built-in map and sensors to navigate hospital halls and communicates with elevators, fire alarms and automatic doors via Wi-Fi.

While a TUG is unlikely to discuss the meaning of life or Philip Roth's latest novel, it can say about 70 phrases, including, "departing now," "please don't push TUG into elevator" and "waiting for clear path."

When not at work, the robots return on their own to individual charging stations to stock up on energy before the next run.

They're also quite user-friendly, with simple "start," "stop" and "lift" buttons and a touch screen that displays their next drop-off or pick-up assignment.

For secure shipments like medications and specimens, hospital staff will open and close the TUGs' secure compartment via fingerprint identification.

Will I see a TUG during my hospital stay?

Our TUGs mostly will spend their days shuttling food trays, trash and supplies down back hallways. They'll travel between floors in staff elevators, where our employees will give them plenty of space to turn. In fact, TUGs have pretty good manners and are programmed to cede the right of way to their human coworkers to avoid accidents.

Occasionally, patients may see TUGs in public areas of the hospital. You'll know them by their snazzy metallic exteriors and the fact that they're, well, robots.

We're also looking to decorate them with colorful "skins," much like the advertisements you see wrapped around buses and cars, so departments can identify their own TUGs from a distance.

Do UCSF's TUGs have names?

Yes! We had a contest, and each department named its TUGs. Some of our favorites were: Wall-E and Eve, a duo that will make deliveries for our pharmacy department; Bashful, Grumpy and Dopey; and Tuggie McFresh.