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A3 Special Report: How Robots and Automation are Fighting Covid-19

by Keith Shaw, Contributing Editor
Motion Control & Motor Association

Coronavirus | COVID-19

As the world continues to fight the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, robots and automation are playing a critical role in helping to safeguard people and process the supplies that humans need as they shift to remote working and home learning. 

Robots are helping disinfect hospitals. Autonomous deliveries are bringing supplies to people as they adopt social distancing. Automated workstations are speeding up the work of pharmaceutical companies. Automation is on the front lines of this battle.

Disinfection robots

UVD Robots, a Danish company formed from Odense University Hospital and Blue Ocean Robotics, has been at the forefront of providing disinfection robots to China to help fight the spread of the virus. The company signed an agreement with Sunay Healthcare Supply in February and has since shipped many of its self-driving robots that disinfect hospitals and other areas with ultraviolet light. The company said this limits the spread of coronaviruses without exposing hospital staff to the risk of infection.

Since then, the company has sold robots to locations in more than 50 companies, expanding offerings beyond China to locations in Europe and U.S. that are experiencing outbreak issues.

“In a severe crisis like this where the world health is threatened, our innovative technology really proves its worth,” said Per Juul Nielsen, the CEO of UVD Robotics.

UVD is also seeing requests from beyond the hospital and healthcare space, including a prison that was having problems with Covid-19 cases among the prisoner population, said Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics. He said the company is receiving interest in buying robots to clean office spaces, production floors, retail stores, supermarkets, airports, hotels and restaurants. 

“On the healthcare side, we grew from some countries to many countries, and every customer is asking for more robots,” said Risager. “But all those other market segments are even a much bigger market segment than healthcare.”

Risager said because the UVD robots have a modular production process, it is “quite easy” for people to learn how to produce, so they can scale up production very fast. He said the company went from producing hundreds of robots to now almost a thousand. “The only thing is with the supply of components, and we had a little bit of struggling at some point, but then China started over again in their production within the last two weeks,” he said. A challenge for the company at this point is working with cargo and shipping companies to reduce costs in deploying the robots to different countries.

Los Angeles-based Dimer is offering its GermFalcon UV-C robots that are designed to disinfect airplanes, and its UVHammer robotic systems for hospitals and variable environments. In mid-January, the company offered its services to the first three major U.S. airports where arrivals from China were taking place.

Xenex announced that the Westin Houston Medical Center was the first hotel in the U.S. to utilize its LightStrike germ-zapping robots as a way to sanitize and disinfect guest rooms and common areas. The technology, which was developed by two epidemiologists in Houston, can quickly destroy viruses, bacteria, and fungi by using intense pulsed xenon ultraviolet light.

The MTR Corporation, which runs the Hong Kong subway, announced working with Avalon Biomedical (Management) Limited to develop the VHP Robot, which stands for Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide robot. The robot is conducting deep cleaning and decontamination in train compartments and stations to protect passengers and staff.

Healthcare assistance

CloudMinds, an A3 supplier member, donated 12 sets of robots to a smart hospital in Wuhan, China, giving overworked and endangered health care workers some relief. The robots performed several essential tasks, including flagging patients at the entrance to the field hospital who displayed fever symptoms, monitoring heart rates and blood oxygen levels, and delivering medication. These robots also cleaned and disinfected hospital areas and led exercise routines for sick patients.

China researchers also designed a robot arm on wheels that can perform ultrasounds, take mouth swabs and listen to sounds made by a patient’s organs, which is usually done with a stethoscope. The robot, fitted with cameras, can perform these tasks without needing medical personnel in the same room. The robot was designed by Professor Zheng Gangtie from Tsinghua University.

Unmanned vehicles

In China, unmanned vehicles and other mobile robots provided deliveries in areas of China affected by the virus. For example, JD Logistics sent two of its L4-class unmanned delivery vehicles to Wuhan from Beijing, with engineers driving the vehicles remotely through the cloud. Another company, Idriverplus, donated an unmanned delivery vehicle to hospitals in Shanghai and Beijing.

As people turn online to order supplies amid empty store shelves, Amazon announced last week it would be hiring 100,000 workers to fill expected order surges during the outbreak. The e-commerce fulfillment space is already seeing growth in the use of robotics to fill orders, and it’s expected that this growth will continue as more people buy things online as they are staying home more.

The New York Times reported that the outbreak is boosting demand for Zhen Robotics and its RoboPony, a self-driving cart that is sold to retailers, hospitals, malls and apartment complexes. The robot is also being used by Sunin.com Group Ltd. to deliver food and other necessities to households in China affected by the outbreak.

Online grocer Ocado, which is aiming to make its warehouse robotics and grocery home-delivery technology available to other supermarkets for a licensing fee, has seen its stock rise 7.6% since the end of 2019 on the feeling that it will benefit from increasing demand for home deliveries during the pandemic.

Teleworking robots?

With millions of people now working at home due to state or country lockdowns, the usage of video and audio conferencing tools has skyrocketed as companies like Zoom, Microsoft (Skype) and others provide virtual meeting tools. But telepresence robots companies are also reporting higher interest in their devices, but not for the same reasons.

While a Zoom or Google Hangout might replace the weekly 2 p.m. budget meeting in Conference Room A, the use of telepresence robots can be used for different scenarios where an attendee needs to move around a location, such as an event planner virtually visiting a hotel’s conference space, or being able to provide telepresence to an event attendee who cannot make it to the event (whether it’s a large business conference or even a small wedding reception).

Ava Robotics, which has been developing mobile telepresence robots for a few years, has seen an increase in interest for its robots due to the current coronavirus outbreak. The company’s CEO and co-founder, Youssef Saleh, said a growing number of hospitals and nursing home facilities have expressed interest in the robots, to provide family members with the opportunity to speak with patients and elderly residents via video due to “no visitors” policies and lockdowns at these locations.

“In some cases, some of these people might be on the last few days of their lives, and now their loved ones can’t be there,” said Saleh. “That interaction that is so crucial in this time and environment.”

Saleh said the Ava robots differ from a software-based videoconferencing app used on a phone or a computer because of the need for ease of use on one end of the call - in this case an elderly or sick patient. He said the company works on making configuration easy for people setting up the robots, so someone can click a link and be instantly connected to the telepresence robot.

“We had an assisted living facility and nursing home that had a zero visitation policy and they asked us for a robot,” said Saleh. “We sent the robot and it arrived at noon on Friday, and by 2 p.m. they had a family member visiting her mother in the hospital. They can’t wait until they broaden it across the board.”

Beyond visitation purposes for the robot, Saleh said hospitals were also using Ava robots for triage purposes specifically around the coronavirus. For example, one of the largest hospitals in Boston is deploying the robot to examine patients remotely with the Ava robots as part on the initial consultation, he said. The hospital is also considering using the robots for situations where doctors need to enter and exit a room frequently - instead of a human doing that, the robot can, which saves the hospital on supplies for when a doctor needs to put a face mask, gowns and gloves each time.

Education

RoboKind, which develops and manufactures advanced social robots, announced it would donate up to $500,000 in coding software for school districts affected by coronavirus school closures. For no cost, districts can receive an advanced release of RoboKind’s District Enterprise robots4STEM avatar-based coding software, the company said. The virtual coding course can help districts provide elementary and middle school students with computer science content during the school closure period.

"As we started hearing from districts that they would be closing schools and moving to virtual learning due to the virus outbreak, we immediately asked, 'What can we do to help?'" said Valorie Loomer, the RoboKind CEO and a former teacher/administrator. 

The company’s facially expressive robots and avatars run on a cloud-based learning platform that integrates social emotional skills with science, technology, engineering, and math. Until now, customers could only receive the software as part of a robot hardware purchase.

"We still believe, and research shows, that the engagement with our coding curriculum is maximized when students can code with a purpose, code in real world environments through event-driven programming, and solve problems with real world robotic tasks, but students need to start somewhere," said Richard Margolin, RoboKind's co-founder and CTO.

Pharmaceutical assistance

Pharmaceutical companies continue to work on a vaccine or treatments for the virus, and robotics companies have been at the forefront of providing companies with automated solutions to help speed up manual and repetitious tasks in this space for years. For companies looking to battle the Covid-19 virus, robotics companies are also offering solutions.

Recently, Hamilton Company announced two new automated assay-ready workstations, based on the company’s Microlab STARlet liquid handling workstation. The new systems can help facilitate rapid, high-throughput diagnostic and research-based testing of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the novel COVID-19, the company said.

The MagEx STARlet enables high-throughput magnetic bead-based RNA extraction of biological samples; and the PCR Prep STARlet workstation is pre-configured and qualified to automate sample setup using the latest protocols from the Centers for Disease Control.

The company said it will prioritize all incoming orders related to the fight against the coronavirus, with rapid delivery of hardware, software, accessories, and consumables from its manufacturing locations in Reno, Nev., and Bonaduz, Switzerland. The goal is to reduce or eliminate testing delays to delivery lag times throughout the U.S. and Europe, the company added.

“Our support of the healthcare community and researchers working to identify, treat, and contain the coronavirus is our prime priority,” said Steve Hamilton, president and CEO of Hamilton Company.

In addition, robots that had already been deployed for companies are now being utilized in the coronavirus fight.  In this ABC News report, ABB robots can be seen assisting a medical lab with producing Covid-19 testing kits.

Food preparation for restaurants

One of the big trends in 2019 and 2020 was the concept of dark kitchens, where restaurants would forgo a physical dining room and only prepare food for delivery, whether it was handled by drivers or robots. With many states closing restaurants and only keeping those open who can provide take-out and delivery, the number of dark kitchens has suddenly risen dramatically.

Several companies have developed robots that aid in food preparation, including Miso Robotics (hamburger grilling and deep frying), CafeX (coffee and other drinks), and Picnic (pizza preparation).

While some food robotics companies have struggled with their concepts before the coronavirus outbreak, the glut of restaurants that have been forced to provide take-out or delivery-only services may give them a second look at some of these automation systems.

Conclusion - robots and humans working together
As the world continues to stop the Covid-19 outbreak, it has become clear that robots and automation technologies will be needed as humans and robots work together.

“These critical automation technologies are keeping people safe, helping develop new medicines and treatments, producing key products people need today, and filling other essential roles,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation.  “We are proud to see our members and other automation companies helping people all over the world cope with this global pandemic.”
 
Keith Shaw is an award-winning technology journalist, writer, editor and consultant. The former editor-in-chief at Robotics Business Review, Shaw has been writing about technology topics for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@shawkeith), LinkedIn , or you can reach him by email.

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