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How robots can join healthcare workers on the frontlines of the battle against coronavirus and future diseases

They could help disinfect hospitals, take over as medical staff, deliver groceries and patrol the streets during a lockdown
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Countries around the world are deploying robots to aid in the battle against the invisible and yet dangerous enemy: COVID-19.  They could help disinfect hospitals, take over as medical staff, deliver groceries, and patrol the streets during a lockdown.

The idea behind using robots in the frontline is to reduce human exposure to the virus. And experts believe robots could emerge as the heroes in coming pandemics.

"By fostering a fusion of engineering and infectious disease professionals with dedicated funding we can be ready when (not if) the next pandemic arrives," experts wrote in an editorial that appeared in Science Robotics.

China used them. Other countries are already working on them. Most recently, Singapore researchers built a robot that can disinfect large surfaces in a short period, reducing the burden on overworked cleaners. As the virus tightens its grips on the world, here is how robots are making a difference.

Rise of disinfectant robots

Coronavirus can spread through contact with contaminated surfaces: it can survive on different surfaces for varying amounts of time. For example, it can survive for three days on plastic and stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard and four hours on copper.

However, the virus is not invincible. The virus is sensitive to disinfectants and UV rays. And disinfection is crucial to halt the virus from spreading further. So engineers have built robots that come equipped with UV light. China had tasked self-driving robots to disinfect high-risk areas such as hospitals.

But these robots are not perfect, according to Singapore researchers. They cannot reach certain areas such as under tables and beds, doorknobs, tabletops and light switches.  

Singapore researchers develop disinfectant robots (NTU)

To address this gap, they recently built a robot that can spray a disinfectant without missing any spots. "To stop the transmission of a virus means we need a way to quickly disinfect surfaces, which is a labor-intensive and repetitive activity," Professor Chen I-Ming, a roboticist from the NTU Robotics Research Centre, who worked on this project, said in a statement.

"Using our new robot from a distance, a human operator can precisely control the disinfection process, increasing surface area cleaned by up to four times, with zero contact with surfaces," he added. The team is planning to test the robot in public places and hospitals.

Can they diagnose disease?

These robots can patrol areas frequented by the public and screen them for a rise in body temperature. Doctors can use them to repeatedly monitor temperatures of in/outpatients in various areas of the hospitals, say experts.

In New York, one company named Promobot was seen measuring body temperatures of people before they enter a building, earlier this month.

Chinese researchers think these robots can help trace contacts of an infected individual and alert those who may come into contact with them. However, this feature will rely on facial recognition software — and privacy issues could be a deterrent.

There is more. Experts believe robots can replace humans to help diagnose the disease. "During a major outbreak, a key challenge is a lack of qualified staff to swab patients and process test samples," experts wrote in the editorial. Robots can speed up the process and reduce the risk of infection to healthcare workers.

How can healthcare robots help?

Edinburgh robotic experts are envisioning a future where robots can hold conversations with more than one infected patient at a time.

"You can imagine in the future that when you walk into a hospital waiting room, instead of encountering a human you encounter a robot who's able to help you. That kind of hands-free, touch-free speech interface is going to be in more demand," Heriot-Watt's professor of computer science Oliver Lemon, told BBC.

The project is called Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare (SPRING). As of now, hospitals are relying on robots — but only to carry out menial jobs such as maintaining patient records or shifting supplies.

Other experts make a case for social robots to help quarantined patients cope with prolonged isolation of individuals from social interaction. "Social robots could be deployed to provide continued social interactions and adherence to treatment regimes without fear of spreading disease," they wrote in Science.

Robots deliver groceries (Getty Images)

Grocery store robots

These robots are already helping out at Schnucks Markets and Giant Eagle stores. Called Tally, the robot can move around the store strategically and scans shelves to identify 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," Brad Bogolea, co-founder and CEO of Simbe Robotics, who developed Tally, told Forbes.

In China, some people are relying on robots to deliver groceries. One company, the Beijing-based Zhen Robotics said that its yellow robots are in demand to deliver groceries.

Commenting on the role robots can play in the future, the experts said: "Now, the impact of COVID-19 may drive further research in robotics to address risks of infectious diseases. But without sustained research efforts, robots will, once again, not be ready for the next incident."