Robots help to combat the Coronavirus

As countries around the world grapple with COVID-19, front line workers are deploying robots to help contain the pandemic and make life a little more tolerable for the rest of us.

China and Spain have used drones to monitor people during lockdown campaigns, while South Korea has deployed them to help disinfect areas in Daegu, an epidemic hotspot.

In early March, a field hospital staffed by robots opened in the Hongshan Sports Center in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began. Dubbed the Smart Field Hospital, the facility is a project involving Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, China Mobile and CloudMinds, a maker of cloud robotics systems based in China and the U.S.

The Smart Field Hospital is a trial aimed at relieving exhausted health-care workers even as the outbreak in China slowed in recent weeks. Robots in this facility include the “patrol robot”, which can check temperatures, identities, and disinfect areas used by hospital visitors.

Other robots used elsewhere include the virus-zapping robot moves autonomously around hospital rooms, emitting beams of concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light to disinfect surfaces.

And very recently, scientists at Tsinghua University in Beijing have developed a robotic arm that can be controlled by doctors in a separate room. The arm can swab patients’ mouths, perform ultrasounds and even listen to their organs.

Here are some detailed examples of robots on the front line ..

Robot doctor could help with future outbreak

Artificial intelligence and robotics experts in Edinburgh are looking to create the first ‘healthcare’ robots that can hold multiple conversations at one time.

It is a project designed to help the elderly, but it could one day be used to help handle virus outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the future, when you walk into a hospital waiting room, instead of encountering a human you will encounter a robot who’s able to assist you.

The hands-free, touch-free speech interface will drive demand for this kind of robot.

Robots are already working in some hospitals but are mostly confined to menial tasks such as shifting supplies or patient records.

You can also have a chat with a digital helper like Alexa or Siri, but such conversations are typically simple, short and one-on-one.

New robots will be able to handle multiple people in social situations.

They will be able to detect that there are several people in a room and ask itself:

“Is this person anxious, has this person been waiting for a long time?

“Are these people actually talking to each other and I don’t need to bother them? Who can I help?”

It will be able to manage the conversation by recognising that the people have different roles – parent, carer, doctor, nurse.

The drive to create what are called socially assistive robots (SARs) is the first phase of a robotic revolution in healthcare.

Research shows conversational robots can be good for your health, decreasing stress and loneliness and improving mood and sociability.

Social robot technology is of interest for elder care because robot companionship has the long-term potential to better connect people with each other. Social robots could improve both psychological well-being and the relationship between patients and hospital professionals.

Robots use light beams to zap hospital viruses

Powerful UV light is already a proven means to kill microbes and as a consequence, UV disinfection robots have joined the fight against coronavirus.

With demand rocketing, UVD Robots in Denmark have accelerated production tripled output of its disinfecting robots. The robot was launched in early 2019, following six years of collaboration between parent firm, Blue Ocean Robotics and Odense University Hospital.

Costing $67,000 (£53,370) each, the robot was designed to reduce the likelihood of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) which can be costly to treat and cause loss of life.

While there’s been no specific testing to prove the robot’s effectiveness against coronavirus, UVD Robots are confident it works.

“Coronavirus is very similar to other viruses like Mers and Sars. And we know that they are being killed by UV-C light,” they say.

Bulbs on the robot emit concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light which destroys bacteria, viruses and other harmful microbes by damaging their DNA and RNA, so they can’t multiply.

There are a lot of problematic organisms that give rise to infections, and if you apply a proper dose of ultraviolet light in a proper period of time, then you can be sure that the organism is destroyed.

This type of disinfection can also be applied to epidemic situations, like the one we experience right now, with coronavirus disease.

To be fully effective, UV needs to fall directly on a surface. If lightwaves are blocked by dirt or obstacles, such shadow areas won’t be disinfected. Therefore manual cleaning is needed first.

UV light has been used for decades in water and air purification, and used in laboratories. But combining them with autonomous robots is a recent development.

American firm Xenex has LightStrike, which has to be manually put in place, and delivers high-intensity UV light from a U-shaped bulb.

The company has seen a surge in orders from Italy, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.

Xenex says numerous studies show that it’s effective at reducing hospital-acquired infections and combating so-called superbugs. In 2014, one Texan hospital used it in the clean-up after an Ebola case.

More than 500 healthcare facilities, mostly in the US, have the machine. In California and Nebraska, it has already been put to use sanitising hospital rooms where coronavirus patients received treatment, the manufacturer says.

In China, where the outbreak began, there has been an adoption of new technology to help fight the disease.

The nation is already the highest spender on drones and robotics systems, according to a report from global research firm IDC.

The robots have been used for a range of tasks, primarily disinfection, deliveries of drugs, medical devices and waste removal, and temperature-checking.

The coronavirus has also spurred home-grown Chinese robotics companies to innovate.

The startup adapted its existing robotic base and software, adding thermal cameras and UV-C emitting bulbs. It has supplied factories, offices and an airport, and a hospital in Wuhan.

How Robots Are Helping Grocery Stores During The Coronavirus Outbreak

Grocery stores are considered essential businesses during the coronavirus outbreak, and employees have been working overtime to keep shelves stocked. As retailers struggle to hire more workers to meet rising demand, the use of robots may grow.

A perfect example of this is the autonomous shelf-scanning robot, Tally, which has been used in several grocery store chains across the US. The no-maintenance robot has more than 40 sensors giving the robot the ability to avoid obstacles as it navigates the floor to scan shelves. Tally can check up to 30,000 products per hour as it audits inventory through the help of cameras, computer vision and machine learning. It is able to identify prices, product placement, availability and special promotions.

Tally strategically, autonomously roams up and down store aisles, quietly scanning shelves and identifying out of stock, misplaced and mispriced items. The data Tally collects about shelf health helps store teams by automating the tedious, often dreaded task of inventory and freeing up human workers to service customers in store, improving the shopper experience.

In Summary

The coronavirus pandemic has fast-tracked the “testing” of robots and drones in public as officials seek out the most expedient and safe way to grapple with the outbreak and limit contamination and spread of the virus.

As one of the world’s most influential tech innovators and a country that had prioritized the advancement of robotics as a key component in its Made in China 2025 initiative, when COVID-19 broke out in China it became an ideal time to see what robots and drones could do to support humans in battling the virus.

Other nations have now risen to the challenge and a post-COVID-19 World will continue to roll out med-robots and drones to fight the coronavirus pandemic and any future pandemics.