Mayo Clinic is using autonomous shuttle buses to transport COVID-19 tests

Luke Dormehl

Hospital staffs are already stretched thin during the coronavirus pandemic, so why not call in some robo-assistance to help? That’s what the renowned Mayo Clinic in Florida is doing by using autonomous vehicles to transport vital medical supplies and COVID-19 tests from a nearby drive-thru testing site to a processing laboratory on Mayo Clinic’s campus.

The round trip is just under 0.8 miles (1,200 meters) in length, with between five and six journeys taking place each day. Four vehicles are currently operating along the route, driving with Level 4 autonomy (meaning that they can handle the majority of driving situations independently), without safety drivers or other human passengers on board. The route is not one that is regularly used by other vehicles or pedestrians, and the vehicles are monitored from a mobile command center to make sure they operate safely.

“Using artificial intelligence enables us to protect staff from exposure to this contagious virus by using cutting-edge autonomous vehicle technology, and frees up staff time that can be dedicated to direct treatment and care for patients,” Dr. Kent Thielen, CEO of Mayo Clinic in Florida, said in a statement.

The Mayo Clinic is working alongside several partners for the endeavor. These include the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), autonomous shuttle bus company Beep, and autonomous mobility company NAVYA.

“As you can imagine, [the] COVID-19 pandemic was unplanned,” Bernard Schmidt, JTA’s vice president of automation, told Digital Trends. “However, the JTA Automation Division had been in discussions with Mayo on other projects, and had established an existing relationship. The ability to leverage the technology and to show its usefulness and purpose was mutually beneficial to providing the service and us doing our part to assist in the COVID-19 crisis.”

Even with existing relationships, though, the project came together impressively quickly. It’s proof positive of how different entities can join forces quickly in a crisis such as this.

“The planning for this operation occurred only a week before the official launch on March 30,” Jérôme Rigaud, chief operating officer of NAVYA, told Digital Trends. “Typically, this sort of project takes several weeks to outline the viability of, including the time needed to analyze site feasibility, deployment mapping, and other technical details. In this case, it was all made possible by the short-notice proactivity and commitment from numerous teams across many organizations, all of whom came together to use their shared technology base and expertise to help in any way they could during the ongoing pandemic.”