Though science-fiction cinema and literature have long painted an interesting and sometimes frightening picture of robots and augmented beings, modern society is increasingly developing and starting to embrace this technology. The use-cases thus far have been relatively controlled and targeted, and have yielded relatively promising applications.
Most recently, the fight against the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be one such valuable use-case.
Early-on during the pandemic, much was still unknown about the virus, especially regarding its transmission and exposure risk. Furthermore, there simply wasn’t enough trained staff to conduct the necessary testing and screening procedures, adding to the already strained testing capacity in the United States.
Accordingly, many healthcare systems started utilizing robots and automated systems to address these needs. Testing facilities at The University of California at Berkeley were among the first to reroute robot infrastructure to help with Covid-19 testing efforts. In an early account of this phenomenon, it was noted that “The latest lab, opening at UC Berkeley next week, will churn out diagnoses in 24 hours. Its workers are robots: industrial drones like the ones that build cars and computers, but for lab-tech work. These boxy bots are miniaturized factories, with all the steps automated. They lift test tubes, drip doses of chemicals, and haul samples into neat rows, each branded with a barcode. In their day jobs, the robots pull genetic material from cells using magnetized “hands,” to study drugs, profile diseases, or learn how cancer develops. Now they’ll moonlight as testers in the war on the virus: running up to 4,000 tests each day.”
More recently, robots are being used for essential functions in the patient-care setting. Take for example Moxi, built by Texas-based Diligent Robotics.
According to one account, Moxi “works full time and delivers PPE, coronavirus and other lab samples and COVID-19 tests. [Moxi] also picks up and delivers anything dropped off for patients.” In the same piece, Andrea Thomaz, Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder for Diligent Robotics reports how during the pandemic, Moxi has become an even more essential part of the team: “The day to day work in the hospital has changed where patients are located, what supplies need to get where […] Moxi carrying things from place to place—you have fewer people moving around between spaces […] At one of the hospitals we’re installed in Dallas Moxie delivered over 4,000 items of PPE throughout the month. And every one of those is something that a nurse did not have to run down to another unit to grab.”
Indeed, the added value is very tangible.
And this is by no means is an American-only phenomenon. Most recently, India made waves in the news-cycle for utilizing Mitra, a 5-foot robot with facial recognition and an attached tablet that has helped reduce exposure and transmission in Covid-heavy hospital settings.
In a completely tangential context, organizations are also using this technology for cleaning and disinfection, in order to prevent exposure and transmission at yet another level. The United States Department of Defense recently studied and tested the use of an advanced robot system for decontamination purposes. Per the report, “The robot has four wheels and a mechanical arm that uses shortwave ultraviolet light to decontaminate surfaces. The current version requires humans to oversee and “drive” the robot, but the hope is that the robot will become fully autonomous.”
According to Dr. Thomas McKenna, a program officer in ONR’s [Office of Naval Research] Warfighter Performance Department, “The value of robots to deploy UVC lamps for decontamination is that you can reduce exposure of humans to the UVC light, and the robot can reposition the lamps over surfaces you wish to decontaminate using its arms […] When the robot was designed, there was no COVID[-19], but the combination of mobility and manipulation are a good match to this task.”
Famed electronics company LG is expected to reveal its own version of a robot with disinfection capabilities this year, aimed for “hospitality, retail, corporate and education customers.”
Indeed, the use-possibilities for this technology are potentially unparalleled, and this new market opportunity for robotics companies will only continue to expand. However, regulatory leaders, scientists, and industry-experts must continue to keep a close eye on where this technology will go and how it continues to be developed—simply as a means to ensure that the highest standards of safety, privacy, security, and efficacy are consistently maintained.