By Ian Ransom, Contributor
Contagion-proof, tireless, and operating with machine precision, robots may end up being the one of the unlikely heroes of the effort to contain the coronavirus as they reinforce the ranks of essential human healthcare workers on the front lines.
One detachment of robots recently became defacto medical staff at a makeshift hospital in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, measuring temperatures, delivering meals, and even entertaining patients. Other robots are being deployed to disinfect hospitals and schools or keep a virtual eye on streets in quarantined cities to urge residents to stay home.
The coronavirus is fast-tracking the testing of “medibots” and drones in public as authorities scramble to find practical and safe ways to flatten the curve of infections by reducing human-to-human contact.
Robots Deliver Drugs and Dancing
Beijing-based robotics company CloudMinds latched onto the potential of its technology early on, sending emergency shipments of robots to hospitals in Wuhan and other Chinese cities. As part of a collaborative partnership with China Mobile and the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, CloudMinds helped convert a field hospital run by people at a local sports venue into one staffed entirely by robots and other Internet of Things devices as part of a week-long trial in early March. Using an artificial intelligence-enabled information management platform synced to smart bracelets and rings worn by patients, human medical staff were able to monitor patients’ vital signs remotely. Other robots delivered food, drinks, and drugs, while a more social model offered a form of entertainment.
“Humanoid medical robots such as ‘Cloud Ginger’ provided information to patients and helped lift the spirits of bored quarantine patients by entertaining them with dancing,” says CloudMinds founder and CEO Bill Huang. “Robots can assist in minimizing instances of contact for medical staff, reducing the chances of exposure, and lowering risk of contamination/infection.”
Remote Control Disinfecting Bots Doing the Dirty Work
CloudMinds is one of a slew of robotics firms leveraging technology in the fight against COVID-19. As the world has seen since the pandemic began, few events concentrate minds quicker than the urgent need to combat a rapidly spreading virus. Governments in a number of countries have issued clarion calls for innovative solutions from the private sector, and a number of firms have answered.
Engineers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and affiliated robotics firms hunkered down for six weeks in February and March as the coronavirus spread around the globe to produce a robot that can rapidly disinfect surfaces. Their remote-controlled eXtreme Disinfection roBOT (XDBOT) is equipped with motorized wheels and features a dexterous robotic arm that can largely mimic human movement and reach awkward locations for cleaning, including under tables and beds.
Having conducted trials at NTU, the XDBOT’s creators are seeking government approvals that would allow it to be rolled out at hospitals. They also believe their robot can not only protect human staff from infection but also solve a labor crunch. Singapore, for instance, has experienced a sudden shortage of cleaners following the repatriation of many of the city-state’s Malaysian immigrant workers due to the coronavirus.
“We asked ourselves: What are the most needed things for COVID-19? Disinfection came to our minds,” says NTU’s Professor Chen I-Ming, the XDBOT’s project lead and CEO of Transforma Robotics.“It’s needed everywhere, not just in homes, but hospitals, schools, public transport, etc.”
Protecting Medical Staff
South China-based UBTech Robotics was also quick to react to the coronavirus by re-tooling its robots for medical uses and deploying them at a hospital which treats coronavirus infections in Shenzhen. Apart from equipping one fleet with disinfectant spray-guns, the company fitted other models with thermal cameras that detect fevers in humans and are programmed with algorithms that can determine whether people are wearing protective masks. Their “Cruzr” model of robots are also fitted with two-way video connections that can allow patients to consult remotely based doctors for an initial assessment. UBTech says the robots can track the temperature of 200 people within one minute and notify human medical workers if any are running fevers.
“Medical staff are a precious resource in this time,” Natasha Huang, UBTech’s Australia country head told a local broadcaster. “In this time, we really need them to do the critical job; we need them to be next to ICU beds; we need them to attend to those severe situations instead of measuring body temperature and then [possibly] getting infected.”
Virus-Tracking Drones Set for Take-Off
Tracking the spread of the pandemic outside of hospitals and indoor spaces is another challenge that researchers hope to meet with smart drones. The University of South Australia (UniSA) has teamed up with Canadian drone maker Draganfly Inc. to produce drones fitted with sensors and vision systems that can monitor temperature, heart, and respiratory rates, as well as detect people sneezing or coughing in crowds. UniSA’s Professor Javaan Chahl, the project’s lead, says his team’s image-processing algorithms can extract a human’s heart rate at “high accuracy” from drones that are within 5-10 meters of people. Fixed cameras can detect heart rates from up to 50 meters.
The team aims to deploy the drones with government, medical, and commercial customers.
The technology was originally envisaged for war zones and natural disasters, as well as remotely monitoring heart rates of premature babies in incubators. “Now we see a need for its use immediately, to help save lives,” Chahl says.
RoboCop on the Beat
With many countries under quarantine measures and police high on the lists of essential workers, Tunisian authorities have taken a novel approach to ensuring law and order. A wheeled robot equipped with video cameras has been on the beat in the streets of the capital Tunis, checking whether local residents are violating lockdown orders that include a ban on going out in public unless to purchase medicine or necessities. Produced by local firm Enova Robotics, the “PGuard” robot approaches pedestrians and asks them to show identification to allow remote police officers to check their details.
“Before this outbreak it was very difficult to sell or promote such ideas [the roll-out of robots] to the public…This really accelerates innovation and people can see the advantages.”
—Professor Chen I-Ming of Nanyang Technological University, XDBOT’s project lead and CEO of Transforma Robotics
Such measures might have seemed curious a few months ago. However, the pandemic is not only fast-tracking the roll-out of robots but also the public’s acceptance of their value during a health crisis, according to NTU’s Professor Chen.
“Before this outbreak it was very difficult to sell or promote such ideas to the public. But this outbreak has made it so companies don’t have costs educating the public,” says Chen. “The public are already aware. This really accelerates innovation and people can see the advantages.”