Can robots provide an effective method to combat the COVID-19 pandemic? A team of robotic leaders, including Henrik Christensen, the director of UC San Diego’s Contextual Robotics Institute, believes that healthcare systems can use robots for a variety of purposes.
In a new editorial, published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of experts weighs in on how robots and machines may help humanity stem the ongoing spread of the virus.
Infrared Thermal image people walking the city streets. Image Credit: Ivan Smuk / Shutterstock
Robots and healthcare
Robots, machines, and artificial intelligence (Ai) have come a long way, and through the years, there have been many breakthroughs, helping people and saving lives. A specialized field where robots can significantly help is healthcare, which is grappling with the sudden influx of patients infected with the novel coronavirus.
In Italy, the healthcare system is on the brink of collapse, with many doctors and nurses contracting the disease. Due to the high infection and death rate in the country, hospitals now lack essential healthcare workers and resources to continue providing care to critical patients.
As of writing, the worldwide case toll has reached 526,044, while 23,709 people have died. Italy is the hardest hit after China, with 80,589 infections and 8,215 deaths. The United States has now reported the most confirmed cases with 82,404 and 1,178 deaths, while Spain has 56,347 cases and 4,154 deaths. China, where the virus originated, has started to recover from the pandemic, it has 81,782 confirmed cases and 3,291 deaths.
How can robots help fight COVID-19?
Despite many countries and territories imposing lockdowns and social distancing, those on the frontlines combatting the virus cannot stay home. Robots, however, can perform jobs that are dangerous for humans, to prevent the spread of the virus and protect health workers from harm.
In some countries, robots are being used to assist with specific tasks, such as disinfection and checking people's temperatures.
However, the authors of this editorial suggest that more could be done. Robots that are used for other uses could be repurposed to handle dangerous tasks that involve a risk of infection. Healthcare systems worldwide could make use of robots in telemedicine, decontamination, monitoring, and compliance of voluntary quarantines. Also, the handling of contaminated waste products, delivering food and medications, monitoring vital signs, and assisting in border controls.
For disease prevention
Robots can help in disease prevention by disinfecting contaminated surfaces. For instance, robot-controlled ultraviolet surface disinfection can help stem the spread of the virus not only from person to person but also through contaminated surfaces.
The coronavirus can stay on surfaces for hours to days. Ultraviolet devices have shown promise in disinfection; hence, hospitals can use this technology for disinfection.
“Instead of manual disinfection, which requires workforce mobilization and increases exposure risk to cleaning personnel, autonomous or remote-controlled disinfection robots could lead to cost-effective, fast, and effective disinfection,” the authors wrote.
Further, robots and computers can use intelligent navigation to detect high-risk and high-touch areas in public places. Disinfection tents could also be used for public spaces, where everyone or anything which goes in needs to be disinfected.
For diagnosis and screening
Robots play a pivotal role in detecting infection, diagnosis, and screening of potential virus carriers. Countries can use automated camera systems to screen multiple people at the same time in large areas. This way, people who have elevated temperatures can be detected immediately. These robots can also work in hospitals to repeatedly monitor temperatures of patients.
These machines can also work in initial diagnostic testing of suspected COVID-19 patients. Automated or robot-assisted nasopharyngeal swabbing may speed up the process and reduce the risk of infection among healthcare workers.
“Automating the process of drawing blood for laboratory tests could also relieve medical staff from a task with a high risk of exposure. Researchers are studying robotic systems based on ultrasound imaging identification of peripheral forearm veins for automated venipuncture,” the researchers added.
Drones can help monitor and detect people with infectious respiratory illnesses. A company in Canada is working closely with the University of South Australia, which developed a pandemic drone to detect and monitor people with symptoms.
The drone will be attached to a special sensor and computer vision system to monitor heart and respiratory rates, temperature, and those who are coughing and sneezing in crowds, public places, and even in offices and other people where people gather or assemble.
Professor Chahl, working alongside Dr. Ali Al-Naji and Asanka Perera, achieved global recognition in 2017 when they demonstrated image-processing algorithms that could extract a human’s heart rate from drone video.
Since then, they have demonstrated that heart rate and breathing rate can be measured with high accuracy within 5-10 meters of people, using drones and at distances of up to 50 meters with fixed cameras. They have also developed algorithms that can interpret human actions such as sneezing and coughing. He says the technology could be a viable screening tool for the COVID-19 pandemic. “It might not detect all cases, but it could be a reliable tool to detect the presence of the disease in a place or a group of people.”
Professor Chahl says the technology was originally envisaged for war zones and natural disasters as well as remotely monitoring heart rates of premature babies in incubators. “Now, shockingly, we see a need for its use immediately, to help save lives in the biggest health catastrophe the world has experienced in the past 100 years.”
- Yang, G.Z., Nelson, B., Murphy, R., Choset, H., Christensen, H., Collins, S. Dario, P. et al. (2020). Combating COVID-19—The role of robotics in managing public health and infectious diseases. Science Robotics. https://robotics.sciencemag.org/content/5/40/eabb5589