In the global war against Covid-19, robots are now increasingly taking on hospital work and other health care tasks to help safeguard humans from deadly infections. 

The novel coronavirus has taken the lives of more than 1,000 front-line medical staff around the world, according to a running tally published by Medscape last updated this week. Coming into direct contact with sick patients undoubtedly contributed to the high risk of death to medical workers.

As a response, tech companies have been stepping up the development of robots that can take over more hospital and patient-care tasks.

“Even in the Ebola outbreak, the importance of using robots had been identified,” Guang-Zhong Yang, the founding dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told Forkast.News. “But there was no sustained funding or no effort to make this happen.” 

See related article: How healthcare uses blockchain to wage a smarter war against the coronavirus pandemic

But the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a new sense of urgency regarding using more robots to in place of front medical care. Leading robotics companies say they do not want to miss another opportunity to integrate autonomous bots into our everyday lives to safeguard society — and especially medical workers — from infectious diseases.

“Our enemy, our common enemy right now is the virus, other than anything else,” said Natasha Huang, Australia and New Zealand country manager of Shenzhen-based UBTECH Robotics.

Here is a look at some of the robots helping in the battle against the coronavirus right now.

Robot nurses to the rescue

The global medical robotics market is expected to register a double-digit compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2019 to 2026, and reach a market value of almost US$ 14 billion, according to market researcher IQ4I. Driving the growth in CAGR is the coronavirus outbreak — which highlights the proliferation of robots in a variety of industries, including healthcare. 

Medical robots in healthcare today are being used in three main areas: surgical robots, assistive robots that aid people with disabilities, and hospital tasks automation. “For Covid-19, you have seen a lot of what we call the exempla deployment of robots, suddenly unlocked in a wide range of use,” Yang said. 

UBTECH’s AIMBOT and ATRIS aim to replace workers who previously had to come into close contact with hundreds or thousands of other people a day to manually take their temperature. According to the company, the robots provide long-range, non-contact monitoring of body temperatures from 2.5 to 3.5 meters away, within 0.3 degree Celsius accuracy.

Using infrared and visible light binocular cameras, AIMBOT detects body temperatures and face mask usage as people walk through the hospital gates. When it detects an area crowded with people, AIMBOT will remind people to practice proper social distancing. In its downtime, it also patrols the hospital and disinfects designated areas with its mounted disinfection spray.

ATRIS, which is an outdoor robot, can measure the temperatures at a rate of 200 people per minute — which Huang says is 20 times more efficient than manual measurements taken by humans. Using anti-vibration technology, the robots are also able to monitor proper face mask usage, instantly messaging hospital staff if any threats such as irregular temperature or improper mask usage.

Together, AIMBOT and ATRIS patrol the indoor and outdoor vicinity of hospitals. Constantly spraying disinfectants and broadcasting epidemic information, they also issue reminders to people to keep a safe social distance once they detect a high density of people in their field of vision. 

UBTECH medical consultation robot Cruzr
UBTECH’s medical consultation robot Cruzr greets patients at Shenzhen Third People’s Hospital. Image: UBTECH

UBTECH’s consultation robot Cruzr is also responsible for detecting face mask usage and broadcasting epidemic information. Visitors can access doctors on duty through Cruzr’s remote video function for online diagnosis. 

“It is unacceptable that frontline clinicians enter into this without [patients being in] protective gear,” Yang said. “So it’s very important that we use technology to mitigate such risks.”

UBTECH’s robot nurses are currently deployed in the streets and hospitals of Seoul, Shenzhen, Wuhan, and even Queensland, Australia. But rising trade and political disputes have blocked their expansion into other markets. Previous media reports have suggested an arrangement that would have sent a small army of UBTECH’s robot nurses to an unnamed hospital in Melbourne, Australia. The deal has since fallen apart, Forkast.News has learned, due to recent tensions between China and Australia. 

Bots that can clean and nag

To safeguard its headquarters against Covid-19, South Korean telecommunications giant SK Telecom has developed a 5G-powered autonomous robot that can disinfect surfaces as well as remind its employees about safety procedures. 

Like the UBTECH robot, the SK Telecom one can also perform contactless temperature screening for visitors. According to SK Telecom, the robot’s development came about from an existing partnership with OMRON Electronics Korea. The robot has been so internally successful that the company plans to make them available for commercial use by the end of this year. 

“In the case of this project, the Covid-19 issue suddenly escalated, and we quickly made necessary module configurations to develop this robot,” a spokesperson for SK Telecom told Forkast.News. He adds that with this strategy, modules can be configured to cater to client needs. 

According to SK Telecom, its bot can achieve 99.9% disinfection of 33 square meters of surface area in just 10 minutes via disinfectant sprayers and UV lamps. SK Telecom’s AI-based video analysis technology powers the 5G robot to identify people clustered too closely together and broadcast, when appropriate, social distancing reminders. It also sends reminders to people to wear face masks. 

SK Telecom's autonomous 5G robot
SK Telecom’s autonomous 5G robot safeguards its headquarters from Covid-19. Image: SK Telecom

Are there tradeoffs with privacy?

One concern with the increasing use of robotics and AI, in general as well as in patient care, is privacy issues and safeguards, if any, over how the data will be used. Robots are increasingly equipped with technology that can be used to identify individual people, such as through someone’s voice or face. Robots are also increasingly tasked with collecting and managing patient medical data.

“What we see during these pandemics is we’re all willing to sacrifice some of these for the greater public health,” Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zürich Bradley Nelson told Forkast.News. “If all the software is open-source, it would be clear how it’s being used.”

However, even without blockchain technology in its robots at the moment, Huang says that UBTECH’s current designs can still protect patient data.

“We designed for all robots to be deployed off-line because we understand some countries have strict privacy laws,” Huang said. “This robot was designed specifically to only work in a WiFi environment and there’s nothing different from a WiFi camera in the hospital.”

According to SK Telecom, its 5G robots do not handle health data and do not record the private information of individual people that they encounter. 

“We understand that people may be worried that their faces may be caught on the video camera,” said the SK Telecom spokesperson, who declined to be identified as a matter of company policy. “That is why we are also developing a technology that blurs out people’s faces when they wear a mask.”

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Out in the streets

UBTECH and SK Telecom are not the only companies developing robots to fight against the deadly virus. There are now drones that remind people to stay home, robot cleaners that disinfect streets and public transportation, and even robot nurses that provide some patient care in hospitals. 

Beijing-based CloudMinds had its army of cloud robots on the ground in coronavirus ground-zero Wuhan, not only to monitor patient temperature in hospitals but also deliver medicine. 

Meanwhile, Italian IT company Omitech’s Tommy the Robot nurse helped Italian clinicians tend to patients in intensive care units (ICU) by staying right by hospital beds. Tommy allows doctors to communicate with infected patients and also monitors equipment readings to alert hospital staff if human attention is required.

Although the efficiency of robots in battling pandemics have failed to gain mainstream momentum in previous viral outbreaks, experts believe that this time, it will be different. 

“The current impact of this epidemic [is the effects] on our mental shift towards robotics [which] is going to be with us for a lot longer and a lot deeper than the Ebola outbreak,” Nelson said. “What it’s really doing is providing a physical distance [between] healthcare providers and the patients, that all of a sudden becomes far more important than we realized when a lot of these systems were being developed.”