By JULIE MINDA
Most of the time security guards blend into the background on a hospital campus, but the newest security guard at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital is garnering a lot of attention.
Everyone wants a selfie with the 300-pound, 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped guard, who bears more than a passing resemblance to R2D2. But, true to its nature, the guard maintains a machine's focus on the job at hand — keeping the parking lots secure.
A robot patrols a parking area at Dignity Health’s Bakersfield Memorial Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif.
The robot guard, an autonomous data machine made by Knightscope, is one of four such robots that are being piloted on Dignity Health campuses in California. In addition to Bakersfield Memorial, California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, Community Hospital of San Bernardino and Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael are testing the robot. Each began using its robot in September.
The Bakersfield Memorial robot uses sensors to run on a route that winds through multiple staff and visitor parking lots. Its cameras provide a 360 degree view within a 150-yard distance. It transmits a real-time video feed to monitors in an on-campus command center. Human security guards view that feed along with feeds from stationary security cameras positioned around campus. Guards also can view the robot's feed on a smartphone or laptop. The human guards determine whether and how to respond to a situation. The robot is equipped with a panic button and intercom that enable people to summon help or communicate directly with a human security guard.
The video feed also is stored remotely, so if a vandal attempts to destroy the robot, the images will be preserved.
The robot is programmed to get out of the way of moving vehicles, and it stops if a person runs toward it. It says, "Please step away," in response to human touch.
The robot has sensors that enable it to "hear," and detect motion and temperature. It can detect unusual or problematic activity and send alerts to the command center. It will get smarter at recognizing potential trouble over time, said William "Shad" Reeves, service area director for security, safety, emergency management and telecommunications for the central valley region of San Francisco-based Dignity Health.
The algorithm that powers the robot collects and stores in its database information on license plates and it records faces coming and going along the robot's route. The software can flag a break with normal patterns — such as when a car with an unrecognized license plate cruises the staff parking lot — and alert security guards to the anomaly.
"It's not going to chase or attack anyone. It's not a physical tool," said Reeves. "But, it's giving us extra eyes and giving us more time to spend with patients and families. That is our mission."
Ken Keller, vice president and chief operating officer for Bakersfield Memorial, explained that the extra time human security guards accrue because of the robot patrol can be used to assist patients and visitors who are lost, and escort them to and from parking areas as needed. He added that the positive interactions between security guards and people on campus "support the environment of care. Our security guards are also ambassadors for the facility."
Reeves said Bakersfield Memorial does not expect to reduce the number of human security guards because of the robot patrol, but he may redeploy them for better coverage. Currently Bakersfield Memorial has 26 guards, who are contracted through an outside vendor.
Dignity Health and the hospitals testing the robots will evaluate their effectiveness and decide whether to keep them after the pilot.
Dignity Health plans to compare incident occurrences from the three months prior to the robot's arrival against stats for the three months after, to determine the robot's effectiveness.
Reeves believes the robot already is deterring crime on the Bakersfield campus. It recharges in front of the emergency department, a scene of past disturbances. Reeves said when people realize they are being monitored, they curtail untoward behavior. Local criminals know about the robot, said Reeves, and he suspects that has cut attempted vandalism and car thefts.
The hospital held a social media promotion to name the robot. The winning entry is "ICU2," a play on "I see you. too"
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