Robots Have a Place Alongside Humans in Solving COVID-19

Pandemic is bringing an array of robotic uses to forefront.

Worries about the potential ills of widespread automation may be temporarily muffled by the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to afflict the globe. While concerns about robotics putting humans out of work are still valid points of debate, the present crisis nullifies at least some of the pushback against automation as many people are unable to work during this time anyway. Moreover, robots can and are being used for certain tasks to help reduce risk of contagion for healthcare and other essential workers.

As robots are not COVID-19 vectors, they can be utilized for functions where social distancing is not possible or practical. With reports of Instacart and Amazon workers striking over risky and underpaid pandemic work conditions, delivery robots are filling the gaps in a few cities in China, Europe, and the US. The medical applications of robots are far reaching. Robots are currently being used in areas hit hard by the pandemic to disinfect possibly contaminated areas, and some bots are equipped with UVC sterilizing capabilities that enable them to enter a hospital room and destroy any viruses that may be lingering in hard to reach areas, sparing workers from exposure. A robotic nurse in Italy has been helping patients in isolation communicate with doctors, and similar models in China can deliver medications and take patient vitals.

A CloudMinds robot  at the Sixth People’s Hospital in Shanghai, China, helps combat the coronavirus. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)A CloudMinds robot at the Sixth People’s Hospital in Shanghai, China, helps combat the coronavirus. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)

From making personal protective equipment to speeding up assembly lines for products that are high in demand right now, the pandemic has abruptly ushered robots into this emergency economy. However, the idea to employ robots to help quell disease outbreaks isn’t new. A team of experts recently published an editorial in Science Robotics calling for more research so that robots can be deployed quickly when the next pandemic strikes.

“As epidemics escalate, the potential roles of robotics are becoming increasingly clear,” wrote the research team. “During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, workshops organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation identified three broad areas where robotics can make a difference: clinical care (e.g., telemedicine and decontamination), logistics (e.g., delivery and handling of contaminated waste), and reconnaissance (e.g., monitoring compliance with voluntary quarantines). Many of these applications are being actively explored in China, although in limited areas and many as proofs of concept.”

At the University of California, Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, a team of volunteer scientists have created a robotic testing lab for COVID-19. Using high throughput machines, the research team can test over 300 nasal swab samples at one time and have results in under four hours. They expect the lab will be able to churn out up to 3,000 tests per day.

“The UC Berkeley team is racing to address this critical public health situation by establishing a testing lab that will be immediately impactful in our community, while also generating data that contributes to understanding the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said Jennifer Doudna, IGI executive director.