Robots are being used on a large scale to combat COVID-19 and that may continue for quite some time. Automation solutions that were unthinkable twenty years ago have matured and are now very practicable, thanks to the convergence of technologies like machine vision, machine learning & AI, open-source robotic operating systems, and mobile components and sensors.
With health experts warning some social distancing measures may need to be in place through 2021, robot workers may be in greater demand. Here are just a few examples of robots at work during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Knightscope has created and deployed numerous COVID-19 Public Safety Announcements across its fleet of Autonomous Security Robots (ASRs). Knightscope’s clients are effectively considered “essential services” (law enforcement agencies, hospitals, security teams, etc.), so the company has been hard at work keeping all of its machines-in-network operating across the U.S. during the pandemic. Knightscope’s fleet of K1 Stationary, K3 Indoor, or K5 Outdoor Autonomous Security Robots (ASRs) broadcast over the air messages to their clients. Similarly, robots are rolling through crowds, broadcasting public service messages about the virus, and social distancing.
Sidebar: Knightscope CEO Interview
Here is a ViodiTV interview with Knightscope CEO and Chairman William Santana Li discussing the Knightscope product line, its multiple sensors, and autonomous capability.
Public works and public safety departments are using robots to spray disinfectant throughout public spaces. UVD Robots, a Denmark based manufacture of ultraviolet-light-disinfection robots, shipped hundreds of its machines to hospitals in China and Europe.
Specialized robots are not only disinfecting rooms but also delivering meals or prescription meds, handling the hidden extra work associated with a surge in patients.
In hospitals, doctors and nurses, family members, and even receptionists are using robots to interact in real-time with patients from a safe distance. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston has been testing a robot named Spot to help them treat coronavirus cases.
Spot was developed by robotics firm Boston Dynamics and has been on the market for some time. The robot’s distinct four-legged design helps it navigate terrain where humans and other robots may have difficulty going. Last week, the hospital began using the robot in interviewing patients suspected of having less-serious cases of COVID-19. Their health robotics toolkit is available on an open-source basis to help frontline healthcare workers everywhere.
Delivery robots are transporting infectious samples to laboratories for testing. However, the majority of robots being used in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients have not replaced healthcare professionals. These robots are teleoperated, enabling the healthcare workers to apply their expertise and compassion to sick and isolated patients remotely.
Drones are providing thermal imagery to help identify infected citizens and enforce quarantines and social distancing restrictions. The FAA just gave an emergency waiver of Part 107 drone rules that allow the partnership of Zipline and North Carolina-based Novant Health to provide non-line-of-sight drone flights through controlled airspace; a first in the United States.
Fast-food chains like McDonald’s have been testing robots as cooks and servers. Futurist Martin Ford said that using robots in the post-COVID-19 world provide marketing advantages: “People will prefer to go to a place that has fewer workers and more machines because they feel they can lower overall risk.”
Other surprising uses of robots during the pandemic include:
- Realtors are teleoperating robots to show properties from the safety of their own homes.
- Workers building a new hospital in China were able to work through the night because drones carried lighting.
- In Japan, students used robots to walk the stage for graduation.
- in Cyprus, a person used a drone to walk his dog without violating stay-at-home restrictions.
Image credit: R. Murphy/V. Gandudi/Texas A&M/J. Adams/Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue
And now, a 5G Robot:
Earlier this week, SK Telecom, together with Omron Electronics Korea, announced that it developed a 5G-powered autonomous robot to enable a systematic and efficient response against the coronavirus (COVID-19).
In addition to the 5G interface, the robot includes AI, autonomous driving capability, and IoT sensors. It carries out diverse activities such as contactless temperature screenings for visitors and disinfection of the building.
Image Credit: SK Telecom
Upon detecting visitors, the robot automatically moves towards them to check their body temperatures using a thermal imaging camera. In case the measured temperature is 37.5°C (99.5°F) or higher, it sets off an alarm and alerts the control center. Based on this data transmitted over the 5G network in real-time, SK Telecom will be able to take necessary measures like prohibiting people with suspicious symptoms from entering the building, etc.
The robot is also equipped with UV lamps and two automatic floor disinfectant sprayers, the robot automatically disinfects the building. It can achieve 99.9 percent disinfection of 33 square meters of surface areas in just 10 minutes.
Applied with SK Telecom’s self-developed AI-based video analysis solution, the 5G robot is able to identify places where people are gathered and then move to the location to play a message stressing the importance of social distancing. It will also identify people who are not wearing face masks and request them to wear one.
SK Telecom plans to ensure greater efficiency in both operation and management of the robot through the application of its big data analytics solution Metatron. Metatron will analyze the robot’s component management data collected via IoT sensors to check the real-time status of the robot and perform predictive maintenance.
SK Telecom and Omron Electronics Korea plan to deploy the 5G-powered robot at their headquarters first and will officially launch the device in Korea this year and in global markets next year.
“As a leading ICT company, SK Telecom is seeking ways to help relieve the unprecedented situation brought by the coronavirus,” said Choi Nag-hun, Vice President and Head of Industrial Data Business Unit of SK Telecom. “We will continue to introduce diverse services fit for the non-face-to-face era by leveraging our ICT including 5G and AI.”
“The 5G autonomous robot is an innovative case where cutting-edge technologies have been applied to overcome the crisis caused by the coronavirus,” said Kim Young-ho, President of Omron Electronics Korea. “The collaboration between Omron Electronics Korea and SK Telecom will serve as a great example showing how businesses can contribute to resolving social issues.”
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the adoption of existing robots and their adaptation to new niches, but it might also lead to the development of new robots with more capabilities. Laboratory and supply chain automation is emerging as an overlooked opportunity. Automating the slow COVID-19 test processing that relies on a small set of labs and specially trained workers would eliminate some of the delays currently being experienced in many parts of the U.S.
If government and industry leaders have really learned any lessons from the tepid response to the COVID-19 threat, it will stimulate the development and use of more robots to aid healthcare workers on the frontlines when the next pandemic arrives.