If the thought of robotic assistants sounds futuristic, it isn’t: Robots already have been enlisted in the fight against the virus. In Hong Kong, a fleet of miniature robots disinfects the city’s subways; in China, an entire field hospital was staffed by robots designed to relieve overworked health-care workers.
In the United States, robots played a role in the country’s first known case of covid-19. One outfitted with a stethoscope and a microphone was used with a 35-year-old man in Everett, Wash., who was confined to an isolated unit after showing symptoms of the coronavirus. He later made a full recovery.
“Already, we have seen robots being deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls,” the researchers write.
They identify plenty of other ways to use robots in the pandemic response. Robots could assist with testing and screening; already, researchers have created a device that can identify a suitable vein and perform a blood draw. Or they could take over hospital disinfection entirely, providing continuous sterilization of high-touch areas with UV light.
The researchers hope covid-19 will catalyze robotics research for the sake of public health. But it isn’t as simple as pressing a power button: It will take a significant investment for specialized robots to hit the market in time to save lives.
The field has been down this road before. After the 2015 Ebola outbreak, opportunities were identified. Implementation, however, remains limited.
“Without sustained research efforts robots will, once again, not be ready for the next incident,” they warn.
Visit bit.ly/COVIDrobot to read the editorial, and to learn about some of the applications experts envision for robots during the pandemic