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Meet-and-greet robot helps Brussels hospital return to normal

13:41 26/05/2020
From Flanders Today

UZ Brussel, the city’s university hospital, has recruited a new member of staff to help it resume routine health appointments. Pepper the bilingual robot will be in reception this week to explain the precautions visitors need to take to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

Pepper has been programmed by Brubotics, the robotics research centre at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, to be good at social interactions. Its wide eyes and expressive hands are also intended to create a friendly impression.

The robot will be stationed in the hospital reception, where it will welcome patients in French and Dutch, and then explain the basics of social distancing, hand hygiene and so on.

“This is done briefly, concisely and without contact,” the hospital explains. “It means Pepper takes on a repetitive but essential task usually carried out by reception staff, so that they can focus even more on dealing with the vulnerable and the needy.”

For those with impaired hearing, a screen on Pepper’s chest provides a written explanation with illustrations.

While this is a practical measure to help deal with the coronavirus, the aim is also to test how useful “social robots” can be in communicating with patients. UZ Brussel already has some experience in this area, and has used a smaller robot called Nora to support children with type 1 diabetes.

For the first week or so, Pepper will be shadowed by a human supervisor to ensure that things go as planned. If all goes well, the hospital hopes to find sponsors to help expand the project.

“This allows us to deploy additional robots and extend their capabilities, for example to include measuring body temperature, checking visitors’ face masks are worn correctly, and pointing patients in the right direction before their appointments,” explained Marc Noppen, chief executive of the hospital.

Photo courtesy UZ Brussel

Written by Ian Mundell (Flanders Today)