It’s a cultural trope that in the future robots will rise up and threaten humanity’s existence. But right now, with a pandemic sweeping across the globe, they might be among our most useful allies.
That’s what robotics experts are saying. In an editorial recently published by the journal Science Robotics, leaders of the field identify several ways robots can assist us during the COVID-19 crisis, spanning contexts such as clinical care, logistics, reconnaissance and work automation. “For each of these areas,” the editorial reads, “there are extensive developments, as well as opportunities, to be explored in robotics.”
Cleaning Hospitals Effectively
Hospital rooms get cleaned thoroughly in preparation for each new patient, but traditional chemicals and methods aren’t enough to wipe out every germ in the time that’s allotted. As a result, hospital-acquired infections are responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths each year. And that’s under normal circumstances.
Now, with a healthcare system that’s shocked by a sudden influx of patients — many of whom may be carrying the highly contagious coronavirus — the stakes for keeping these facilities clean are even higher.
That’s why some hospitals are buying up virus-killing robots.
UVD Robots, a Denmark-based company, has been shipping fleets of ultraviolet disinfection robots to hospitals in need. These bots rove from room to room using something called simultaneous localization and mapping. That allows them to navigate hallways all on their own with minimal human oversight. Once in a room, the bots blast walls and surfaces with ultraviolet light, which rips through a harmful microorganism’s cells, disabling its DNA.
“There are extensive developments, as well as opportunities, to be explored in robotics.”
In February, UVD Robots signed an agreement with Sunay Healthcare Supply, a Chinese medical equipment supplier aiming to deliver the bots to more than 2,000 hospitals throughout China.
The San Antonio-based Xenex has also been deploying UV disinfection bots to keep up with coronavirus-fueled demand. The company’s flagship device, the LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot — a four-wheeled box mounted by a long, lantern-like tower — automates the cleaning process, using pulsing xenon lamps that quickly knock out germs lingering in a room’s nooks and crannies.
Xenex’s robots are already in more than 500 hospitals around the world — including Italy, Spain, Japan and the United Kingdom — and that number is growing daily due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Specialized cleaner bots, like those made by Xenex and UVD, are more useful than ever right now. They not only help hospitals reduce coronavirus transmission from surfaces, their work also frees up staff to spend more time focusing on tasks that require a human element — like attending to sick patients, for instance.
And they also help keep hospital workers — who are already overwhelmed and undersupplied — out of harm’s way. COVID-19 can spread through contaminated surfaces like metal, glass and plastic. By ordering a machine to clean an area that sees a large volume of sick patients, hospitals can limit healthcare professionals’ exposure to the virus.
“That makes me really happy that this technology has been redeployed and is reducing the risk that someone — a patient, someone bringing a patient in, a healthcare worker — might pick up the coronavirus from the environment,” Dr. Mark Stibich, cofounder and chief scientific officer of Xenex, told Built In.
Promoting Public Safety
Police officers are strapped for time and limited in capacity, so they’re offloading patrol work to robots to help monitor compliance as cities and countries call for mandatory sheltering in place. Several countries have already deployed bots specifically for quarantine enforcement, keeping people off the streets and out of unsafe situations.
In Tunisia, for example, unmanned vehicles armed with thermal sensors and video and audio capabilities whiz through city streets, checking to make sure nobody breaks the order to stay inside. Meanwhile, in China, flying drones outfitted with zoom cameras and megaphones patrol from above, dispersing crowds and broadcasting safety information as needed. Spain, too, deployed a legion of aerial drones that warned people to stay inside after the country declared a state of emergency. Even in New York City, a friendly looking robot rolled through Times Square, disseminating basic facts about the coronavirus and passing out face masks. (The bot was banned for not having a permit.)
In some cases, patrol robots have even been used for fever detection. Authorities in China have reportedly strapped drones with thermal imaging cameras that try to uncover if anyone below has a fever.
“Unmanned aerial systems are becoming more and more the basic tool for public safety,” says Dr. Robin Murphy, a professor at Texas A&M University and pioneer of the disaster robotics field. “And so we’re well positioned to do any of those [applications] that we’ve seen in other countries.”
It doesn’t have to be creepy, or give off Big Brother vibes, either.
“There’s some clever things you can do with [drones],” Murphy said. “You can provide information in multiple languages. You can be encouraging. You don’t have to be screaming at them.”
Robots Can Do Essential Tasks Without Putting Workers at Risk
Robots can offer a lot of value in continuing the work and maintenance of socioeconomic functions.
“We need to be able to act at a distance. Not just see and talk at a distance,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of things in life that are really important — like our power grids, our water and sanitation — and, at some point, somebody’s got to turn a valve.”
But in circumstances like ours, it would be safer if the hands turning that valve belonged to a robot.
"At some point, somebody’s got to turn a valve.”
Something Murphy learned talking to doctors who managed the Ebola outbreak was that they didn’t want to spend their time doing dull, mundane jobs, like taking out the trash; they would rather have spent it offering more direct care to patients.
Robots, she believes, should be the ones completing these tasks during an epidemic, so that essential workers can concentrate on using their ingenuity and taking care of other people.
One company building this sort of robot is Diligent Robotics in Austin. Their bot Moxi is designed to do those types of tasks — the chores that are essential but that no one wants to do. This, and bots like it, may be exactly what a crisis like COVID-19 needs to more efficiently allocate our most precious resource — creative, compassionate people. But it’s not yet ready for widespread use in hospitals.
Many people around the world are feeling the strain of social distancing and quarantine. They need groceries, medical supplies and other daily necessities — but the potential hazards of venturing out into crowded public spaces has some thinking twice. Others want to support their local restaurants by ordering takeout, but are hesitant to put delivery drivers at risk.
This is another area where robots could meet our needs.
Kiwibot, a startup in Berkeley, California, uses cute little robots to deliver food, snacks and, recently, hand sanitizer, face masks and toiletries. Last week, delivery robots in Washington, D.C., began dropping off goods to local residents: Broad Branch Market, working with Starship Technologies, dispatched a squadron of six-wheeled robots to zip down sidewalks and deliver food orders to people who didn’t want to leave their front steps. And since February, Chinese delivery app Meituan Dianping has been using autonomous ground vehicles to carry grocery orders to customers.
There are several more bot-powered, last-mile goods delivery startups in the United States. And this moment may prove to be their first big test. (Some think the opportunity came too soon.)
What about drones? Outside of the U.S., we’re seeing unmanned aerial vehicles used to accelerate contactless delivery.
Zipline, a medical drone company currently operating in Rwanda and Ghana, has been managing the crisis by using drones to deliver medical supplies from warehouses to local clinics before they run out.
“In the past, if you needed a certain level of care, the only place you could get it was the hospital,” Justin Hamilton, Zipline’s global head of communications, recently told Fast Company. “Now, because you can go to a clinic closer to home, that helps free up capacity at the hospital to deal with larger emergencies and make sure that that bed space is reserved for somebody who might need it.”
Further investment in robotics is really an investment in protecting human lives.
Even though drone regulations are stringent in the U.S. relative to other countries, the impact of the coronavirus, plus some recent moves by big tech companies, may signal a change on the horizon. Last week Amazon hired a longtime Boeing executive to run its drone delivery unit, and UPS’s drone delivery subsidiary partnered with Wingcopter, a German transport drone producer.
“The drone industry in the United States is nascent,” Murphy told Built In. “But epidemics are a really good time [to use them] because there’s not a lot of people to fly over.”
The editorial in Science Robotics ends with a call to arms, making the case for further investment in robotics, which is really an investment in protecting human lives: “By fostering a fusion of engineering and infectious disease professionals with dedicated funding,” the editorial reads, “we can be ready when (not if) the next pandemic arrives.”