The idea of robots taking up jobs previously done by humans was seen as a threat even a few months ago. Researchers now believe that robots could perform some of the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs associated with combating the COVID-19 pandemic, in the areas where humans cannot step in.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, healthcare organizations, hospital staff and those involved in the sector are facing extreme challenges – from hospital backlogs to influx in demands to business continuity challenges. In such a crisis, robots can be used for clinical care such as de-contamination, delivery and handling of contaminated waste as well as monitoring compliance with voluntary quarantines, believe experts.
An editorial in the journal Science Robotics written by leading academic researchers including Carnegie Mellon University’s Howie Choset, argues that robots conceivably could perform such tasks as disinfecting surfaces, taking temperatures of people in public areas or at ports of entry, providing social support for quarantined patients, collecting nasal and throat samples for testing, and enabling people to virtually attend conferences and exhibitions. In each case, the use of robots could reduce human exposure to pathogens – which will become increasingly important as epidemics escalate.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, for instance, are performing research to address humanitarian aid and disaster response. For that task, they envision a combination of AI and robotics technologies, such as drones. Human-robot interaction, automated monitoring of social media, edge computing and ad hoc computer networks are among the technologies they are developing.
Last month, another group of researchers in the field of robotics at UC San Diego said that robots can prove as effective tools in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Henrik Iskov Christensen, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego, and his co-authors, particularly highlighted the role that robots can play in disinfection, cleaning and telepresence.
“For disease prevention, robot-controlled noncontact ultraviolet (UV) surface disinfection has already been used because COVID-19 spreads not only from person to person via close contact respiratory droplet transfer but also via contaminated surfaces,” Christensen and his co-authors said.
“Opportunities lie in intelligent navigation and detection of high-risk, high-touch areas, combined with other preventative measures,” they said, adding that the new generations of large, small, micro, and swarm robots that are able to continuously work and sanitize or sterilize all surfaces could be developed to combat the deadly coronavirus infections globally.
To support the healthcare crisis, UiPath, an enterprise Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software company, is offering healthcare organizations free RPA software to accelerate critical processes and free up strapped employees so they can more rapidly respond to issues arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re heavily invested right now in helping combat the spread of COVID-19 with the help of our RPA platform and providing our customers timely support as they transition to new operating models,” said UiPath Co-Founder and CEO Daniel Dines, who informs that several healthcare companies are using UiPath’s software robots to address the influx of demands brought on by COVID-19.
For example, The Mater Hospital in Dublin is using UiPath’s attended robots to process COVID-19 testing kits in a fraction of the time. The hospital not only receives patients’ results in near real time, but significantly reduces the administrative strain placed upon its Infection Prevention and Control Department. By giving a robot to every nurse, the department saves three hours per day so medical personnel can spend more time taking care of patients rather than completing paperwork.
Other healthcare facilities also observe how machines can free up human hospital medical staff while limiting the spread of the virus. A hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, is using an ultraviolet (UV) light robot to disinfect the facility. The hospital is using UV light instead of hydrogen peroxide, because it cuts cleaning time down from hours to five or ten minutes.
For disease prevention, robot-controlled non-contact UV surface disinfection has already been used because COVID-19 spreads not only from person to person via close contact respiratory droplet transfer but also via contaminated surfaces,” said the researchers.
Read more: Robotics Process Automation Trends in 2020
In India, the Sawai Man Singh Government Hospital in Jaipur, Rajasthan is conducting a series of trials on a humanoid robot to check if it can be pressed into service for delivering medicines, and food to the COVID-19 patients admitted there. This could potentially reduce the chances of the hospital staff contracting the infection, hospital officials said in an article in Economic Times.
Another company, Asimov Robotics, a Kerala-based startup has developed a three-wheeled robot that it says can be used to assist patients in isolation wards. This will include helping with things like food and medication, something that nurses and doctors have been doing so far, putting them at larger risk of contracting the virus.
Overall, the impact of COVID-19 may drive sustained research in robotics to address risks of infectious diseases in future. As Choset emphasized with a sustainable approach to research and evaluation, technologies like AI and robotics could help in responding to epidemics and pandemics in the future as well.