Can robots help combat the COVID-19 pandemic? Researchers find out

According to the study, robots can be used for clinical care such as telemedicine and decontamination; logistics such as delivery and handling of contaminated waste
Representative Image
Representative Image

Although many people around the world are practising social distancing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, robots can be effective tools in combating the COVID-19, say researchers.

According to the study, published in the journal Science Robotics, robots can be used for clinical care such as telemedicine and decontamination; logistics such as delivery and handling of contaminated waste; and reconnaissance such as monitoring compliance with voluntary quarantines. "Already, we have seen robots being deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls," said the study researchers from the University of California (UC San Diego) in the US.

"For disease prevention, robot-controlled non-contact ultraviolet (UV) surface disinfection has already been used because COVID-19 spreads not only from person to person via close contact respiratory droplet transfer but also via contaminated surfaces," they added.

In the study, Henrik Christensen, Professor at UC San Diego, highlighted the role that robots can play in disinfection, cleaning and telepresence. "Opportunities lie in intelligent navigation and detection of high-risk, high-touch areas, combined with other preventative measures," the authors of the study said. New generations of large, small, micro-, and swarm robots that are able to continuously work and clean (i.e., not only removing dust but also truly sanitising/sterilising all surfaces) could be developed, they added.

In terms of telepresence, "the deployment of social robots can present unique opportunities for continued social interactions and adherence to treatment regimes without fear of spreading more disease," the researchers wrote. However, this is a challenging area of development because social interactions require building and maintaining complex models of people, including their knowledge, beliefs, emotions, as well as the context and environment of interaction, they said.

"COVID-19 may become the tipping point of how future organisations operate," the authors said. According to the study, rather than cancelling large international exhibitions and conferences, new forms of gathering --virtual rather than in-person attendance, may increase. "Virtual attendees may become accustomed to remote engagement via a variety of local robotic avatars and controls," they added.

"Overall, the impact of COVID-19 may drive sustained research in robotics to address risks of infectious diseases. Without a sustainable approach to research and evaluation, history will repeat itself, and technology robots will not be ready to assist for the next incident," the authors concluded.

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