The Pandemic Next Time!

Plague-Proof Robots Wanted Long Term

It took a war, but battle-tested healthcare robots are now on every hospital’s must-have list. ...However, will they ever get built?

As COVID naggingly lingers, have we forgotten all about robots in the service of humanity?
“Historically, robotics research ended soon after the crisis that demanded it ended,
as seen during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. That approach likely guarantees that robotic tools
won’t be ready for use in the next crisis.”

By: Pavithra Rajesh
Global Correspondent

“After a mass trauma comes the mass forgetting. No one really wants to talk about COVID any more, even though it tore through every dimension of our lives. But now it’s as if the disruption was so great, weird, terrible, and abrupt, that we cannot incorporate it into our present and future narratives.”

“The pandemic barely comes up as an election issue. COVID-related deaths were announced each day. One death was “too many.” Now COVID-related deaths are on the rise and no one blinks.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought infection, death, unemployment, poverty and a disruption of normalcy. However, one of the few “benefits” of this time may be the technological development from the use of robots in hospitals. Positive experiences are leading to doctors wanting them to stick around long after the pandemic “ends.”

How have robots helped in hospitals?
With case numbers rising every day, hospitals all over the world are overworked, understaffed and are hot spots for infection. Robots have contributed to easing that pressure by cleaning and disinfecting rooms, assessing incoming patients, allowing doctors to see patients virtually, entertaining young children in quarantine, and much more.

In Tullamore Hospital in Ireland, an autonomous ultraviolet cleaning machine named Violet has been effectively decontaminating rooms at a rate four times faster than humans. Violet emits UV light, which is known to be effective against SARS-CoV-2, and uses it to destroy the genetic material inside viruses.

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“It takes human cleaners an hour to carefully disinfect the CT scanning room,” said Christina Kiernan, an orthopedic surgeon at Tullamore Hospital. CT scans are critical in diagnosing COVID-19, and their rooms must be cleaned after each use.

In comparison, Violet takes 15 minutes to do the same, quadrupling the hospital’s capacity for CT scans, even though humans still must wipe down the “nooks and crannies the robot can’t get to.”

“That sort of extra headroom, delivered while reducing risks to human cleaners, is too good to ignore,” said Kiernan.

Similarly, Antwerp University Hospital in Belgium has utilized robots in streamlining the admission of COVID patients as well as in preventing doctors from potential infection. Suspected COVID patients arrive at the hospital and are greeted by a “child-sized robot with stubby arms and a spherical torso.”

This UBTECH robot uses a camera to check the patient’s temperature and verify if they’re wearing a mask. They scan a QR code on a questionnaire that patients fill out and use it to assess if the patient is high-risk in order to direct them to the appropriate ward.

“People are very attracted by it,” said Michael Vanmechelen, who oversaw the robots’ integration into the hospital. “It’s really a bit of magic.”

Not only are robots used to minimize the risk to workers, but they are also used to increase the quality of a patient’s experience in the hospital, as seen in the Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona.

Ohmni Labs telepresence robots have helped doctors see their patients virtually, but they also entertain young children who are quarantined. For example, these robots have hosted caricature artists who use the bot to sketch the children remotely and then they send their sketches to the hospital to be printed out.

Even for simple video calls with family members, staff members have said that a physical structure makes a significant difference.

“It’s a huge benefit for our patients,” said Matt Bryson, who maintains electronic equipment at the hospital, “to have these experiences when they’re not allowed to experience a lot of other things.”

Robots also deliver food and medicine to patients and transport test samples. Combined, these reasons communicate why doctors consider these robots to be irreplaceable measures in their hospitals and hints at why they would like their usage to be long-lasting.

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Why should robot helpers become permanent?
“When the pandemic is over, the robots should stay,” said Kiernan.

In hospitals, the most significant benefit of a robot is their immunity. They cannot contract the variety of infectious diseases that patients may have, and they protect the hospital’s vulnerable front-line workers by allowing them to operate the robots from a safe distance away from an infected patient.

“The reaction from staff…has been so positive,” said Kiernan. “We’re protecting the staff, we’re protecting the patients, and we’re protecting the cleaners.”

While doctors are charged with caring for sick patients, robots can contribute to caring for doctors by ensuring they don’t have to perform tasks that put them at a high risk for infection, especially tasks that could easily be done by a machine.

“When health workers are at risk, we are all at risk,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

Nevertheless, robots are often faced with hostility because they take the jobs of human workers. In this case, however, the more menial, routine work that robots take on, the more time doctors and nurses can spend on crucial human interaction and care, a value that a machine can never replace.

“The human contact part [of the job] is really important,” said Bill Smart, a roboticist at Oregon State University.

If workers can spend less time doing logistical work, which put them in vulnerable positions for longer, they can deliver a higher quality of care to their patients in terms of personal interaction.

COVID-19 is not the first infectious disease, and it won’t be the last. While the current pandemic may have exposed certain cracks in the medicinal industry, they are problems that have long existed and that can reemerge in the future. This time, hospitals can be ahead of the game.

How did the pandemic further technological development?
Although it’s hard to imagine any positive aspect of this global pandemic, the rapid technological development in hospital robotics can be tied to the urgency and high risk brought about by the coronavirus.

“The pandemic has actually enabled projects to happen,” said Kiernan. “The bureaucracy has been removed. People are more willing to take a measured risk approach that says, ‘Okay, let’s try something,’ in a safe environment, of course.”

The benefits that robots have shown in health care during the pandemic has encouraged a deeper look into their higher potential.

FACO (see story below)


“At this time, we really need to ensure that we have a global orchestrated sustainable approach to [robotics] research,” said Guang-Zhong Yang, dean of the Institute of Medical Robots at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

According to Russell Taylor, a roboticist at Johns Hopkins University, the trick is not to design robots for a specific problem, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s “to find solutions that can be broadly commercialized for the next system in ways that they’re economical to have around.”

However, roboticists agree that research and development shouldn’t begin in the middle of a crisis, but it should begin now, so that considerable progress has been made in time for the next disaster.

“You can’t just design a robot and take it to a hospital and say, ‘Here, use my robot.’,” said Bill Smart, a roboticist at Oregon State University. “You want to integrate it into a person’s life before it becomes a stressful situation.”

Historically, robotics research ended soon after the crisis that demanded it ended, as seen during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. That approach likely guarantees that robotic tools won’t be ready for use in the next crisis.

“Today, investing in robotics development is a lot like investing in a large snowplow,” said Robin Murphy, a roboticist at Texas A&M University. “It’s expensive and not put to use for much of the year. But when a big snowstorm hits, it proves its worth.”