In the world of autonomous mobile robots, most machines can be placed somewhere on the spectrum between humanoid and non-humanoid.

Humanoid robots are similar to many that we know from pop culture lore: C-3PO, the Transformers, and even Baymax (an inflatable robot from Disney’s film Big Hero 6, inspired by a Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute design.) Humanoid robots are designed to replicate the physical and emotional characteristics of humans, and these no doubt, humanoid robots tantalize the imagination of the public and have generated a lot of interest in the the global robotics market in recent years.

Japan is probably leading he way in developing humanoid robots.  In fact, they see robotics in general as a “pillar” in its efforts to revive its economy.  Immense amounts of funding is flowing into the development of this technology.  Yet, for all of the interest and innovation, fully autonomous human sized (or even near human sized) robots are immensely difficult.  Interestingly, the U.S. is behind Japan in the development of humanoid robots.

This may not be a problem though.  Non-humanoid robots, on the other hand, do not aim to imitate humans in form and vaguely in function.  They also tend to have very specific roles – rather than be a “do it all” assistant.  Our very own TUG mobile robots, and iRobot’s Roomba are each seminal examples of non-humanoid robots. As opposed to humanoid designs, non-humanoid robots prioritize function over form, and might share only a few characteristics with humans – but have been successfully deployed.

Although Aethon’s TUG is situated firmly at the non-humanoid end of the design spectrum, they functionally do have “human” traits: They help patients and hospital staff in the same manner that a nurse or pharmacist would. Their security features highlight the importance of the goal at hand: Delivering the right medications or supplies to the right patient, every time.  In addition, the TUG speaks in the language of its user to indicate what it is doing, what it is about to do, or to confirm that a person has completed an expected task.

Even though the TUG is very much “not human” in form, a number of hospitals that employ our TUG mobile robots have taken the liberty of personalizing their automated helpers in both human and non-human ways:

Albany Medical Center

At Albany Medical Center, where TUGs help transport blood products between buildings and laboratories, staff has named their three robots Rosie, Sonny, and WALL-E — Rosie being the robotic maid from The Jetsons; Sonny being one of the main robotic characters from I, Robot; and of course, WALL-E being the titular character from the 2008 Pixar film of the same name.

Although the names add a bit of personality to the robots, hospital leadership has urged staff not to engage with them while en-route. “These are not toys,” said Blood Bank Supervisor Carla Chamberlain. “Passersby may have an inclination to stand in front of them to see what happens, but everyone has to remember these robots are on a mission to deliver life-saving blood products in a timely manner.”

UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay

At UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco, TUGs also have fun names: Eve, Bashful, Grumpy, Dopey, and Tuggie McFresh, as well as the ever-popular WALL-E. Other TUGs in their fleet will be named based on their functions — food service robots will be named after different fruits, while others will be named for districts in San Francisco, like Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf.

UCSF decided the even wanted an “international” flair to the TUGs and requested the spoken cues be recorded using accents and native languages.

UCSF will also add a flourish to their TUGs’ exteriors, by using custom-designed skins, so some TUGs will look like fruits or the city’s trademark cable cards. There will even be a special “gold” robot, which pediatric patients will be challenged to find.

Childrens Hospital Boston

At Childrens Hospital Boston in 2011, staff decided to dress up their food service robot like a train, complete with “choo choo!” sound effects as it rolled down the hall. You can watch a video of the mobile robot in action, here.

Said Shawn Goldrick, director of patient support services at Children’s Hospital Boston: “In addition to looking cute and delighting our patients, the TUG robots serve an important role in delivering food to our nursing floors…Our food service professionals are now able to remain on the floors supporting patients’ food service needs, allowing nurses to spend more time providing hands-on patient care. We love the fact that we are able to accomplish something so functional while also bringing smiles to patients’ faces.”