Your Smartphone and Laboratory Automation

May 01, 2012

While perusing potential keynote speakers for the SLAS2014 conference, The Lab Man reviewed a video of a recent presentation at Google about the use of new smart media devices as medical tools.  That got me thinking about similar uses related to the R&D laboratory.  Sure, everyone uses their mobile devices for texts, e-mail or web browsing, but how many are using them as actual remote laboratory tools?   I recall hearing one colleague at SLAS2012 talking about how his staff was checking in on systems using their iPads.  And I saw another presentation from Eli Lilly where the presenter logged in to a live view of their automated chemistry system.  

GNF Systems showcased their screening systems by remotely hosting a live demo from their booth.  On the exhibition floor the operators had a live feed on a 42” screen from 360o HD network cameras mounted over their screening systems in La Jolla.  They used Remote Desktop from a laptop to control the screening systems and all peripheral devices.  As a true display of the capability of GNF Systems’ tools, live from the show, an operator took a picture of conference attendees with a smartphone, sent it to his computer in La Jolla, ran a script to convert the photo into an advanced dispense file then dispensed FITC into a 1536w plate with a GNF dispenser and imaged it on a PerkinElmer ViewLux (see attached images) - all within a couple of minutes.  Attendees could watch the plate being processed from the live feed and see how it interleaved with a screen that was already running.  From their mobile devices or laptops operators are able to access screening results in real time and remotely control any instrument on their screening systems.

Original Smartphone ImageOriginal Smartphone Image

Image mapped to 1536 well plateImage remotely mapped to 1536 well plate

What else is out there?  I thought I’d do some checking to see what’s new, and ran across the following examples.

The latest Agilent Technologies OpenLAB Chemstation allows one to receive status information about chromatographic runs via your mobile device.  Status updates are nice, but how about being able to remotely take action if the status isn’t good?  If you happen to be doing laboratory scale chromatographic purification, you can monitor and control the operation with the Teledyne Isco application for your mobile device.  The system goes beyond just monitoring and allows run-time control of such things as gradient, run length and peak collection modes.   That’s pretty cool. 

If you’re into create-your-own systems with National Instruments LabVIEW, it seems the LabVIEWhacker has driver downloads for Android devices (iPhone coming soon) and even for Wii devices!  Who is the LabVIEWhacker, anyway?  From the NI website itself is a Smartphone Communication Toolkit – T4SM.  Note this is a 3rd party app, and NI “shall have no responsibility whatsoever for the performance.”  Check out this YouTube demo.  Or view this NI video showing control of a six-axis Mitsubishi robot via a Will remote control. 

Most of our lab automation advances originate outside the laboratory, so what's new and exciting in that domain?  Vodafone sponsors annual competitions for innovative applications of their technology.  In the 2009 competition, two winners used smartphones to create compact microscope devices.  The Cellophone from the EE Department at UCLA is used to capture microscale image signatures of blood cells.  Advanced signal processing of the image back at the central lab allows highly specific and accurate medical diagnosis to be made. 

Computer vision startup company Picitup has recently won awards for their iOnRoad application that uses a smartphone camera as a real-time driving assistant, monitoring for road hazards, possible collisions and lane deviations.  They refer to it as "Augmented Reality."  

Could we be heading toward compact laboratory devices that use a commercial smartphone as the core of their computing, vision and communication capability, much like these SPHERES developed by MIT for NASA?  Of course, not many of our laboratories operate in zero gravity, so our version of SPHERES would have to have a different mode of locomotion.  But it does provide some interesting food for thought.


Until Next Time,

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto




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