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Coworkers talking into telecom for teleconference

Telepresence robots open new frontiers in business

by Teresa Meek
 
Star Long, executive producer at Austin video game company Portalarium, worked with game designer Richard Garriott for years. Then, Garriott got married and moved to New York.

In the past, this may have put an end to their collaboration. Today, technology keeps them together — thanks to telepresence robots.
 

Was that Richard, or “Richard”?

Garriott travels to Austin for one week a month, but the rest of the time, he joins the team as a telepresence robot. His digital double—made by Double Robotics—stays in the office all day, rolling through corridors to attend meetings and wheeling into colleagues’ cubicles to surprise them with an impromptu chat.

Staffers have become so accustomed to the device that they sometimes can’t recall whether Garriott attended a meeting as a robot or in person. “It’s not as good as having a real person, but it’s pretty damn close,” Long says.

​Higher-end robots can even build maps of offices and integrate with enterprise-level security and encryption systems.

Expanding market

Telepresence robots — remote-controlled, wheeled devices that let users control movement and carry video-display “heads” — started out as expensive, buggy devices that were the butt of jokes.

But as more competitors have entered the market and prices have dropped, telepresence robots have moved beyond jokes. Today, iRobot, Double Robotics, Suitable Technologies, VGo Communications, MantaroBot, and Giraff Technologies are just some of the companies that have developed new telepresence models.

Offices use them for teams when some people work remotely. Robots allow them not only to attend meetings, but to participate in water-cooler chats, helping remote workers remain connected to the larger office. Robots can also save companies money by attending conferences and trade shows. Higher-end robots1 can even build maps of offices and integrate with enterprise-level security and encryption systems.

The telepresence sector is expected to reach $372 million in 2019, according to ABI Research,2 and will find uses in healthcare, business management, retail, facilities management and operations, equipment maintenance and repair, and manufacturing. And they may expand their duties to even more sectors in the future. Next year, Florida will be experimenting with robot cops,3 whose hulking, six-foot steel bodies aim to scare parking violators into paying up.

Calling doctor robot

But the sophistication of today’s telepresence robots allows them to do even more than collect tickets and attend meetings — doctors are using them to perform remote surgery.4 They have been used successfully for prostate surgery, hysterectomies, fibroid removal, joint replacement, and even open-heart and kidney surgery, as well as for organ biopsies in conjunction with MRI scans.

Doctors see images of the patient and control the robot through a computer, so they don’t have to hover over an operating table for hours, which can cause hand fatigue and tremors.

But the robots aren’t a surgical cure-all — at least, not yet. At the University of California, San Francisco, an error in the hospital’s computerized prescription system led to an overdose of 38 times the amount of antibiotics a patient needed. It was a combination of computer error and human error; a busy nurse could have adjusted the dose, but trusted the computer without further thought.

Some other issues revolve around latency — the time lag between the doctor’s computer and the surgical instruments’ movement in the operating room. Also, computer programs can’t change the course of surgery during an operation, as a live doctor can. And the jury’s still out5 on whether robots provide better outcomes for patients.
 

Learning curve

The potential use for telepresence robots is enormous, but the challenge will be integrating high-tech systems with the work of real people. Thankfully, problems such as what happened at UC-San Francisco are rare. But they point to the need for people to reexamine their own behavior patterns as robots take on increasingly complex tasks in the workplace.

So what’s the impact that telepresence robots may have on the enterprise? As of right now, the major impact is on remote collaboration. Providing remote workers with tools like these can lessen the issues associated with working from outside the office. But it’s important to note that, while these are some of the more visible tools out there, it’s just one aspect of remote collaboration. In order to best succeed with a remote workforce, businesses must have an entire tool chest at their disposal to communicate with remote workers, empower their workforce and make best use of their critical business information.

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Teresa Meek
Teresa Meek is a Seattle-based writer with 15 years of experience in journalism. She has covered business, technology, health and culture, and has written for the Miami Herald, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, and the Seattle Times. She has also worked with a number of corporate clients, including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, and Microsoft.
 
 
1 Martin LaMonica, "The Knowledge Worker’s Next Must-Have Gadget: A Telepresence Robot." xconomy.com, September 10th, 2014. http://www.xconomy.com/national/2014/09/10/the-knowledge-workers-next-must-have-gadget-a-telepresence-robot
2 "Mobile Robotic Telepresence Systems to Reach US$372M by 2019 Driven by Applications Requiring Independent Mobility, Embodied Presence, and Social Interaction." ABI Research, March 23, 2015. https://www.abiresearch.com/press/mobile-robotic-telepresence-systems-to-reach-us372
3 Justin Gardner, "As Early as 2016, Robot Cops Will Be Patrolling Your Streets.......No, Seriously." Telepresence Options, February 18, 2015. http://www.telepresenceoptions.com/2015/02/as_early_as_2016_robot_cops_wi/
4 "The Official Medical Robotics News Center Sponsored by; AVRA Medical Robotics, Inc." All About Robotic Surgery. http://allaboutroboticsurgery.com/surgicalrobots.html
5 Cameron Scott, "Is da Vinci Robotic Surgery a Revolution or a Rip-off?" Healthline, August 10, 2016. http://www.healthline.com/health-news/is-da-vinci-robotic-surgery-revolution-or-ripoff-021215