It is difficult to find any organisation or business that has not been affected by COVID-19; however, it is perhaps our healthcare system and the professionals who run it that are going to bear the biggest brunt over the coming weeks and months.
With finite medical resources and huge pressure placed on the National Health Service, robotics experts in Edinburgh have been working to create what they hope will be the first healthcare robots to hold a conversation with more than one person at a time.
The project was initially designed to assist the elderly; however, the team spearheading the project soon realised that their robotic prototype could help battle future global health crises.
The project, which has been funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative, is called Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare (SPRING).
Robots in hospitals today
Hospitals across the globe have adopted robots into their day to day running; however, they are often given menial tasks, such as transporting supplies or updating patient records.
These new advanced robots will be able to detect when several people are in a waiting room and determine who to approach, based on a variety of factors, for example, how long the patient has been waiting, how anxious they appear or whether people are preoccupied.
The SPRING project encompasses eight research labs across Europe and Asia. These research labs will work to research and develop new conversational AI, computer vision, machine learning and human-robot interaction. This research, combined with human behaviour analysis and sensorimotor robot control, will be vital in allowing SPRING robots to function as intended.
Disinfectant robots clean hospitals in China and Italy
Robots are also in use in hospitals today in other scenarios. Danish robotics firm, UVD Robots has developed a self-driving robot which is being used by Chinese and Italian hospitals to kill microbes with a zap of ultraviolet light.
The robots are equipped with eight bulbs which emit concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light which can destroy bacteria, viruses and other harmful microbes, by damaging their DNA and RNA, disabling their ability to multiply.
Ultraviolet light can be hazardous to humans; therefore, staff and patients have to wait outside the room for between 10-20 minutes whilst the robot gets to work.
Following 6 years of research and testing, UVD Robots launched their first disinfectant robot in early 2019 but have recently seen a surge in demand due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
These robots could play a huge part in the world’s fight to get on top of coronavirus, but despite its incredible ability to destroy bacteria and viruses, to be fully effective, UV light needs to fall directly on a surface and light waves can be blocked by dirt and dust. Therefore, manual cleaning of surfaces is still required for the disinfectant robots to function properly.
UV light has been used to purify water and air for many years; however, combining it with autonomous robots is only a recent trend.
It is inspiring to see the developments that have been made in the robotics world, to help in the fight against global pandemics and promote a better healthcare industry. The rapid spread and disruptive nature of coronavirus across the globe has starkly illustrated the need for technology to step up and develop solutions for the present and future. The robotics sector is central to this and it is surely just a matter of time before being treated by a robot becomes the norm. For now though, looking at innovative ways robots can be used to support healthcare professionals as they battle to stay on top of the COVID-19 crisis, is top of the agenda.