A Look at the Crucial Role of Robots In the Coronavirus Crisis

April 29, 2020 - 8 minutes read

Robotic medicine artificial intelligence concept. Robot doctor with stethoscope, syringe blood test. Blue background. empty space for text.

There are many ways humanity is mobilizing to fight against the COVID-19 crisis. While most of us can’t help out at the hospital as a nurse or doctor, we can sew masks, use our 3D printers to make supplementary PPE, and create web and mobile resources to help others cope.

Luckily, we’re also receiving a helping hand from technology. It turns out that robots are doing their fair share of aid: more than two dozen types of robots have been working to support public health and safety by working inside and outside of hospitals, automating testing, and helping humans slowly return to normal life again.

The Newest Essential Workers

If you’ve been to a hospital lately, you might have seen a cylindrical robot wheeling around the ICU area. This automaton allows healthcare workers to take the patient’s temperature, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure remotely. It also helps the patient (especially those on ventilators) maintain their breathing in a sterile and sanitized room.

But this isn’t the only robot concerned with cleanliness. Many medical facilities are also employing large robots equipped with ultraviolet light; they roam the hallways, rotating vertically to disinfect everything they pass by.

Robots are also helping to attend to those who are quarantined. Cart-like automatons are being used to deliver food to people confined to hotel rooms during this crisis. And quadcopter drones are scurrying back and forth, bringing test samples to labs — and also taking photos of anyone violating shelter-in-place restrictions.

These incredibly diverse robots are providing much-needed help. In a global disaster such as this one, we would be remiss to not rely on robots to relieve as many frontline workers as possible. This includes taking care of sanitization, hourly vital measurements, resource delivery, and even a few duties for local police departments.

A Global Effort

Roboticists at the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and Texas A&M University researched over 120 ways that robots are helping 21 countries during this pandemic. They concluded that aerial and ground robots are indispensable in managing the COVID-19 crisis.

Medic robots holds a tubes with a stick for scraping PCR and blood test. Abstract diagnostic room, medical equipment: table, test tubes blood samples on blue background. copy space

Besides disinfecting hospital rooms and hallways, robots are also delivering food and prescriptions to patients. Some are even handling the extra paperwork and data entry that comes along with a surge in patients.

Outside of many hospitals, sanitizing robots are hard at work spraying disinfectant in public areas. Besides identifying people violating their local stay-at-home orders, drones are being used to create thermal images to find people with fevers and remind people to stay more than six feet apart. One country is even using a robot to roll through crowds, with audio advising people about the virus and social distancing.

For those who must keep working but cannot work from home from a computer all day, robots are helping them keep up business as usual. At a new hospital in China, construction workers worked through the night as drones carried the lighting around the hospital.

Realtors are using robots to teleconference with video during property tours without leaving their homes. Japanese students “attended” graduation with robots walking the stage. And in Cyprus, Greece, a man used his drone to walk his dog so he wouldn’t have to violate the shelter-in-place restrictions.

A Helping Hand, Not a Replacement

Although some of the robots in use are autonomous, that is, developed with AI, there is zero indication that they are taking over human jobs. Instead of displacing workers, robots are aiding them in a myriad of ways.

Robots work faster than most humans, saving time and effort that can be used more productively elsewhere. Aside from efficiency, the usage of robots also helps save vital personal protective equipment (PPE).

All around the world, robots are undertaking tasks that humans could not do safely during this time. This also prevents workers from being exposed to the virus, which is going to save countless lives.

Off-the-Shelf Instead of Cutting-Edge

It’s important to note that, while many startups and research labs are innovating during this time and developing medical robots, these new robots are highly unlikely to make any sort of impact now. Most medical facilities are choosing to rely on tried-and-tested automatons rather than new prototypes.

Most often, robots used in an emergency, especially those making a major difference, were already in common use before the disaster occurred. One reason is that healthcare workers (and other frontline workers) are way too inundated with smaller details during a disaster to spend any time learning or training on a new machine.

Robots already in use can be repurposed in the event of a disaster: agriculture drones, ones that spray pesticides over many acres of farmland, are being used in India and China to spray disinfectant over large urban areas.

Newer iterations of robots will certainly be useful in future pandemics. Which leads us to our next thought: We mustn’t pause innovation when humanity recovers from this pandemic.

Robots Can Help Us With Future Crises

From Los Angeles to Beijing, COVID-19 has brought the world in a standstill. It’s inspiring to see how robots are being used to help humans handle this pandemic better. We hope that the benefits these automatons have brought spur new innovation in this field. It’s clear that robots hold vast potential to help out in crises like this pandemic.

What developments would you like to see in the field of robotics? Did you hear about any other examples of robots helping out during the COVID-19 crisis? As always, feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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