2020: Robotics vs. COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly posed constant challenges to all spheres, from culture, sports, the economy, transportation, and of course the health sector, whose personnel have been the most exposed to suffering the disease because of the direct and constant treatment of infected patients.

From the end of March 2020, when many governments of the world closed their borders and urged their citizens to begin to quarantine, questions began to be asked about how much effort would be needed at the global level to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and how economies should interact. To all these questions another doubt was added: could robots be an effective resource in this complex scenario?

The answer was yes, and their huge contribution was more than demonstrated by the initiatives that were implemented mainly in China, to care for patients with the help of robots.

Robot potential excelled in three main areas: medical care, logistics, and reconnaissance, although they would also do important work in maintaining socioeconomic functions in the recovery phase of the pandemic by allowing a wide range of operations to function remotely.

Although applications for patient testing and control had already been used, the use of new technologies needed to go one step further, mainly in terms of working directly with patients and in the sanitization of shared spaces.

Several Chinese companies were fully dedicated to the development of this type of automated technology, to carrying packages without human-to-human contact, to creating disinfectant sprayers, or to performing basic diagnostic functions, in order to minimize the risk of infection and contact between people.

One of the first firms to come into play was Pudu Technology, a company that manufactures robots for the catering industry, which achieved the installation of machines in 40 hospitals across the country, whose task was to assist health personnel in the distribution of medicines and food to infected people in their beds and rooms, thus reducing the chances of direct and cross infection.

At the heart of the coronavirus epidemic in China, in the city of Wuhan, all kinds of technologies were deployed to fight the disease, from disinfection robots, smart helmets, drones equipped with thermal cameras, to advanced facial recognition software.

MicroMultiCopter, a Shenzhen-based company, deployed drones to transport medical samples and perform thermal imaging. Meanwhile, the most advanced artificial intelligence has been used to help diagnose patients and accelerate the development of a vaccine. Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, claims that its new artificial intelligence-based diagnostic system can identify a coronavirus infection with 96% accuracy.

On the other hand, SenseTime, a leading artificial intelligence company, installed software to read the temperature of a person without contact in subway stations, schools and community centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

More than a substitute for medical personnel, the development of software and robots has made an important contribution to the treatment of patients, mainly because of the ability to carry out activities such as the supply of medicines or food deliveries in health hotels, without being susceptible to infection, and because it allows the remote monitoring of people with mild symptoms. Thus, on analyzing the benefits, more and more countries took advantage of the experience in Asia and began to use robots in hospitals and in different city spaces.

One could imagine that robotics and artificial intelligence “threaten” to automate a good share of the tasks that are currently performed by human beings, but in cases like this – of a pandemic – they have proven to be of great help, although of course this is not the only new technology that can be used in such emergencies.

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