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ST. LOUIS – A new, hidden highway is part of the billion-dollar Barnes-Jewish Hospital expansion in the Central West End.

It’s a highway you’ll never drive. The few workers who do have access better stay out AGV lanes.

About 20 AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) now make about 975 supply deliveries-a-day via the new robot highway below the Barnes-Jewish north campus, from the new Parkview Tower to St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

They have their own elevators, even their own vocabulary.

Along the underground delivery network, you hear them chattering, “vehicle is approaching” or “vehicle will be entering elevator.”

“Yes, ‘vehicle is approaching!’” said Erika Wade, an activation lead manager for the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Campus Renewal Project.

“They hop on the elevators all by themselves,” said Barnes-Jewish AGV Operations Manager John Gerding. “They go up to the floor, exit the elevator, and are dispatched to the lobby. Then a supply technician will come and retrieve the supplies.”

“Instead of all deliveries coming between 10 o’clock and 3 o’clock during the day, we can massage it out,” Wade said.

The delivery routes are all programmed.

Workers use a keypad to order a cart and set the destination. The AGVs deliver everything from test tubes to clean sheets.

They have streamlined and centralized the delivery system, keeping it all out of sight and out of mind for patients, visitors, doctors, nurses, and medical technicians. With loads of up to 1,000 pounds, they save a lot of wear and tear on the humans.

“[Wear and tear] that would have been an extreme physical burden on some of our employees. This relieves that burden. The robots get it there more efficiently and you don’t have the threat of injury,” Gerding said.

“A lot of times when you get into these big organizations you see the end product … but there’s a lot of inner workings in order for us to deliver that great patient care,” Wade said.

The robots stop anytime someone or something is in their path. The manufacturer, JBT of Pennsylvania, boasts a record of zero accidents.

The robots are not replacing people, just lightening their load, hospital officials said.

The goal is to have the robots make close to 2,000 daily trips and ultimately incorporate them into renovations on the Barnes-Jewish south campus.