Robotics and COVID-19: What after The Pandemic?



Why Do We Need To Accept That Robots Have Become Our New Asset?

Robotics has been one of the biggest disruptors for digital transformation. They have effectively helped shape many industries to achieve automation, gain higher productivity with accuracy, and helped lighten the burden of monotonous rote tasks on humans. This is why whenever the word robotics or robot comes to mind, we immediately visualize gigantic robotic arms helping pack a box full of commodities or assemble the car parts. However, currently, this field is not limited to the assembly lines. The current COVID-19 pandemic due to coronavirus is instrumental is expanding the scope of robots beyond their traditional roles. Without them, it would not have been easier for us to adhere to social distancing or keep factories running while we are under lockdown. Here are some of the emerging applications of robotics that are likely to continue after pandemic dies down.

Robotic biosensing: The integration of synthetic biology and soft robotics has fundamentally augmented the sensory, diagnostic, and therapeutic functionality of bio-inspired robots. These infrared thermal imaging equipped bots can automate the monitoring and remediation of biohazards in real-time in indoor environments. After the COVID-19 pandemic fades away, public spaces will be dotted with these biosensors to detect viral pathogens in the air, floors, walls, ceilings, equipment, and every surface.

Robotic distancing: Well, it is established that factories, especially the small and medium scaled ones, will be dependent on human labor even after the pandemic. But if COVID-19 has taught us something, it is to maintain social distancing in whatever work we are doing. Hence collaborative robots or cobots are likely to be deployed to reinforce this social distancing while getting some of the critical tasks done alongside human workers. These cobots can transport raw materials, tools, and finished goods from one place to another, thereby eliminating the need for face-to-face encounters in the supply chain. At Procter & Gamble, cobots are used to carry activities like unscrambling and loading parts into machines, case packing of finished products into cartons, stacking cartons on pallets used for shipping, doing repetitive tasks in R&D labs like pouring samples or loading test samples into testing equipment.

Other robots will use proximity sensors to determine when people are failing to maintain social distancing guidelines and will be able to voice warnings and take other automated actions to ensure distancing. Much like in hospitals like the Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital in Guangzhou City, which is making use of autonomous delivery robots to transport drugs around the hospital, robots will also be used for food, medicine, and other essentials’ delivery. For instance, six-wheeled delivery robots of Starship Technologies have been delivering food in some of the streets of the USA.

Robotic disinfection: Public places, transports are hotbeds of contagious transmission of pathogens, and COVID-19 is no unique either.  Hence there is always the possibility of the spread of infectious diseases. eXtreme Disinfection roBOT or XDBOT, a semi-autonomous robot developed by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, can help in sanitizing since it has an electrostatic-charged nozzle that discharges chemicals with a positive electrical charge over the negatively-charged surfaces. This is to ensure a broader and farther spread of disinfectant behind and over surfaces while being an efficient method to disinfect, unlike traditional pressure-spray nozzle. It can house a range of disinfectants in its 8.5l tank and navigates using HD cameras equipped with lidar sensors.

Even Denmark-based Blue Ocean Robotics has proved resourceful by deploying an autonomous mobile robot that can enter a room and disinfect it with UV-C light, without exposing medical co-workers to potentially harmful radiation. Such robots can allow workers and customers to reoccupy public areas. Some of these types of robots can also sense the best hand guidance approach for relaying physical objects between humans while mitigating the risk of passing infectious agents from one person to the next.