Pandemic proves utility of a wide range of service robots

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of life, as people around the world work from home, avoid public gatherings, and shelter in place. Hospitals in many regions have struggled to keep up with a surge of patients, while delivery services — especially those that provide food and medication — have become essential.

As healthcare and other service providers try to keep up with the demand, robotics is proving its value. Across industries, robots are being used to help maintain “social distancing” of staffers and customers or patients.

In addition, robots are not taking jobs but are alleviating the workloads of those most under pressure, such as nurses and doctors. The growth in robotics usage has been so sudden and widespread that the industry will be worth more than $23 billion by 2021, predicts ABI Research.

The novel coronavirus is spurring innovation, as well as more serious consideration of robotics applications. Here are more examples of how the robotics industry is responding to the pandemic.

Robots back up medical workers on the front lines

As the number of sick patients rises, some hospitals are being pushed to capacity, and most have struggled with shortages of trained healthcare workers. Staffers have been forced to make difficult decisions as they prioritize care for critically ill patients while trying to avoid infection themselves.

Hospitals looking for ways to relieve some of the pressure on staff and ensure that necessary tasks are completed have started looking to medical robots. For example, at Circolo Hospital in Lombardy, the Italian region hit hardest by the pandemic, administrators have turned to “robot nurses” to help care for patients.

Each of these donated robots comes equipped with a tablet and a patient monitor. The tablet allows patients to remotely communicate with doctors and nurses, reducing the risk of virus transmission. At the same time, the monitor keeps track of vital signs like blood pressure and oxygen saturation.

These measurements are critical in determining patient condition. By remotely recording them, the service robot can free up doctors and nurses to check on patients who need more immediate attention.

Unlike human nurses, the robots don’t need personal protective gear, like gloves or masks, when interacting with patients, and they can be easily wiped down. This is a crucial benefit for the Italian hospital system, which has struggled to source this equipment.

Pandemic accelerates adoption of mobile service robots

Other facilities that had already planned to use robots have introduced them early. Westport, Conn.-based Maplewood Senior Living fast-tracked a project to deploy caretaker robots from Temi Inc. at more than 14 of its homes as a result of the virus. These robots are designed to help meet residents’ needs during social distancing, when in-person visits are no longer allowed and travel may not be possible.

Each mobile telepresence robot is capable of delivering packages to rooms and collecting items. Like the robots at Circolo Hospital, they come equipped with a computer-screen face that allows residents to connect with relatives and doctors.

Other hospitals are acquiring robots to help with hygiene and sanitation efforts. In China, there has been a surge in demand for robots that clean hospital floors or that use ultraviolet lights to disinfect surfaces tto limit the spread of viruses such as COVID-19.

Mobile Industrial Robots ApS (MiR), which makes materials-handling robots, has seen a “many-fold increase in new demand from hospitals,” said Emil Jensen, vice-president of China sales at Odense, Denmark-based MiR. “A lot of people are calling us for the first time.”

Robots could check infrastructure — even plumbing

While it’s not clear whether or not it’s possible to catch COVID-19 through plumbing, there is some evidence based on previous outbreaks of other coronaviruses — like SARS — that COVID-19 may be spread through the sewage system.

The World Health Organization said that many modern water-purification techniques, such as chlorination and disinfection with UV light, can prevent the spread of COVID-19 through the plumbing system. They are generally effective at ensuring a community has clean water in a disaster, according to filtration company MECO Inc.

However, maintenance of central water purification may not be enough. Dry pipes and broken septic tanks may make sewage systems more susceptible to contamination. This means infrastructure maintenance may be even more important during the outbreak. Other plumbing issues, like leaky pipes, can also put a strain on water systems and cause significant amounts of clean water to be lost.

Robots can be helpful here. Some companies have already deployed robots for detecting leaky pipes. Boston-based Watchtower Robotics Co. was working to commercialize a technology that won a James Dyson innovation award in 2018.

Such robots may be effective as a kind of plumber’s assistant, identifying common issues with building pipes and sewage systems and reducing the amount of time plumbers need to spend on call, where they could contract or spread the coronavirus.

Robotic, drone deliveries get another look during pandemic

As shops close, urban traffic lightens, and most governments encourage citizens to limit their outings, delivery services have become a lifeline for many people. However, even the limited contact among people in warehouses or between a delivery driver and a customer can put both parties at risk.

In response, several companies have begun fast-tracking or expanding their use of ground robots to reduce the risk of spreading disease while making deliveries. They include Starship Technologies, Nuro, and Neolix, which raised Series A+ funding last month.

Companies that offer delivery via autonomous drones have also seen a significant uptick in demand. Wing Aviation’s drone-delivery service has become a popular alternative to other methods in rural Virginia.

The unit of Google parent Alphabet has been using drones to fly out food, medications, and other essentials such as toilet paper to homebound individuals. The pandemic has helped some drone companies such as Wing, which was surprised at the “uptake of customers” following Virginia’s shelter-in-place order, said Alexa Dennet, Wing’s head of marketing and communications.

Wing has already made more than 1,000 deliveries, and while its services are currently limited to just a few locations, the company hopes to expand within the U.S. and globally.

Pandemic’s effects on robotics still to be seen

From telepresence to security, robots have been in the news, but long-term shifts in development, funding, or deployment have yet to be seen. Industrial automation has slowed down with manufacturing. However, many factories and warehouses are considering collaborative robots and mobile platforms to help keep human workers at safe distances while maintaining or restarting operations.

Even as the COVID-19 crisis inevitably passes, it’s likely that social distancing will remain an option amid fears of reinfection and future pandemics. More companies have realized that robots can increase efficiency and protect health by limiting human contact in certain tasks, such as food handling and preparation.

Hospitals are among the organizations using robotics and artificial intelligence not just for cleaning or materials handling, but also to improve business processes. Will some of the investments in self-driving vehicles be redirected toward service robots and drone deliveries?

In the past several years, the adoption of automation has coincided with low unemployment. Even though more labor is now available, hygiene concerns and the chronic lack of workers in critical sectors such as healthcare, agriculture, and transportation will continue to drive commercial robotics.

As the pandemic continues and forces continued social distancing, more organizations will be willing to apply automation to new challenges. Robotics developers that help meet this demand and serve public needs should find success.

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