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Autonomous Shuttles Find Work in Fight Against Coronavirus

At the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., autonomous shuttles are being used to transport viral tests and supplies. The move frees up personnel to test patients at a time when the health-care sector is struggling.

A healthcare worker at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., unloads COVID-19 tests from an autonomous shuttle.
Courtsey Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, Fla.
Self-driving shuttles are finding an important role to play in the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis.

Small, electric autonomous shuttles are being used to ferry COVID-19 tests and medical supplies from a drive-through testing center at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. What's more is that the half-mile trip is made without a human operator on board.

“With no operator, it frees the Mayo clinic staff to do their work and serve patients,” said David Cawton II, communications director for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), a partner on the project. “Additionally, with the need to social distance the shuttle limits human-to-human interaction.”

The project is a partnership among JTA; Beep, an autonomous mobility platform; NAVYA, a maker of autonomous electric vehicles; and the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

“This is the first time we have utilized autonomous vehicles on our campus,” said Tia York, a spokesperson for the Mayo Clinic. “Mayo Clinic is committed to growing technology and innovative solutions in our medical practice that change how patients receive health care, so there is certainly opportunity to find other applications where autonomous vehicles can be utilized moving forward.”

The autonomous shuttles have little to no interaction with other vehicles and are not operating on public streets, said Cawton, adding, “the Mayo campus is private property.”

The new transport service began March 30, using four vehicles, traveling from the drive-through test facility to a processing laboratory on the Mayo campus. The autonomous vehicles are able to provide not only transit, but a climate-controlled environment for the sensitive medical cargo, said Cawton. 

“As we are only transporting a large cooler of test samples, we are able to provide a controlled environment,” he explained.

The vehicles are controlled from a remote location.

“We have an established command center on site where we are able to monitor the vehicles,” Cawton explained. “Additionally, we have extra safeguards in place throughout the routes.”

Small, electric shuttles have been involved in a number of AV applications at locations around the country, largely in test environments to explore their application as transit vehicles. Autonomous shuttles are often seen as one of the most promising uses of AV technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic has offered up what may be a whole new role for robotics in an effort to reduce human contact.

"NAVYA’s shuttles, mainly, are designed for first and last-mile transportation, making them an ideal solution for short-distance people and goods transport," said Jérôme Rigaud, chief operating officer for NAVYA Inc. "Like we’re witnessing from the operation in Jacksonville, this sort of use of autonomous technology can result in not only a safer environment for medical professionals but also frees up the time of staff in many areas to focus their expertise on what matters." 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.