Hospital wards across the country could soon be decked out with self-driving beds that will help protect staff from the coronavirus.

A Hinkley-based engineering company, which typically focuses on developing unmanned vehicles for the military, has received £50,000 in State funding to explore the feasibility of applying its tech to hospital beds.

Digital Concepts Engineering (DCE) won the funding off the back of a call from Innovate UK, a State-controlled body tasked with backing new ideas. In March, Innovate UK called on industry and academia to present ideas that could help the country deal with Covid-19 that could be developed at a relatively low cost.

DCE director Lionel Nierop said the idea came about after seeing reports of hospital porters dying after being exposed to patients that contracted Covid-19.

“We concluded that actually the technology we’ve been developing to allow robotic vehicles follow soldiers around the battlefield would, of course, be directly transferable to a hospital bed as well,” Mr Nierop said.

“The key challenge here is that the NHS has very tight budgets. It’s all very well producing the world’s most high-end robotic hospital bed but that no use if it’s never going to be commercialised.”

Innovate’s funds will be used to fund the research and development of the device, which is being built under the name “Project Helios”. DCE intends the device to be a small wheeled robot that can be attached to any bed and will have a quick-release mechanism.

Once fitted the bed will follow a “beacon” worn by the controlling nurse. The bed will then follow the nurse around the hospital using AI-driven machine vision through cameras and lasers to avoid bumping into anything. Nurses will be able to set the distance it wants the bed to be from the beacon to help maintain social distancing while moving patients.

DCE intends on building a demonstration vehicle within six months.

Mr Nierop said the devices will represent a “cost saving” against the cost of having someone to move the beds around.

“Our vision would be to have multiple (devices) available in every hospital or indeed every ward,” he said.

“Obviously we’ve designed this in response to Covid-19 but it has other applications as well. But there are increasing challenges in hospitals, for example having to deal with bariatric patients.”

Mr Nierop said that “quite a lot” of hospital staff had suffered injuries when moving heavy patients around the hospital.

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