Robots could play a major role in tackling epidemics and pandemics such as COVID-19, a group of experts have argued. Public health authorities and medical staff could use robotic technologies to help prevent, screen, and diagnose infectious diseases, according to an editorial published in the journal Science Robotics.
The experts say that robots have the potential to carry out some of the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” tasks involved in fighting an infectious disease pandemic, reducing the chances of human exposure to pathogens.
However, the authors note that while robots are already being used in limited settings around the world, in many countries, the technology required to carry out some of these tasks is some ways away from being ready for widespread deployment due to a lack of research, development, and funding. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic may act as a catalyst to speed up the development and deployment of these technologies, the experts say.
“Robots are excellent for working in places that are dangerous to humans,” Bradley Nelson, one of the authors from ETH Zürich, Switzerland, told Newsweek. “With regard to COVID-19, they could be used to disinfect contaminated areas, deliver food and medicine without spreading the disease, and monitor people in public places for symptoms.
“Robots could also be used to keep doctors safer by allowing them to interact with their patients without coming in direct contact with them. Robots have always been used to take on dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs, and this pandemic requires these kinds of jobs are done all over the world to slow this thing down,” Nelson said.
During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, researchers identified three broad areas where robotics could make a crucial difference: clinical care (telemedicine and decontamination,) logistics (delivery and handling of contaminated waste,) and reconnaissance (monitoring compliance with quarantines measures.)
The impact of the the current COVID-19 pandemic — which has brought economies to a standstill — also highlights another area where robotics could be particularly useful: the continuity of work and maintenance of socioeconomic functions.
“We have already seen robots deployed in China, but it is true that this has been in limited numbers and more as a proof-of-concept so far,” Nelson said. “With intense effort from our robotics researchers, we will see more and more robots being used. If the pandemic persists for as long as some predict, there is a genuine opportunity for robotics to step up to the plate.”
“Everyone, especially scientists, are thinking about what they can do to help address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nelson said. “Our article is intended to draw the attention of robotics researchers to this, encouraging them to think of innovative ways to use our research to help slow down disease transmission and improve the safety and speed of testing.”
When it comes to disease prevention, the use of autonomous or remotely-operated robots could provide a cost-effective, fast and efficient way to disinfect contaminated surfaces. This would reduce the need to use cleaning personnel for this task, mitigating the risk of infection. Miniature tanks have already been deployed in China during the current pandemic for this purpose.
In terms of diagnosis and screening, automated camera systems are already used in some countries to screen the temperature of multiple people across a large area. The authors say thermal imaging systems could be incorporated into autonomous or remotely-operated robots to “increase the efficiency and coverage of screening.”
“These mobile robots could also be used to repeatedly monitor temperatures of in-/outpatients in various areas of the hospitals with data linked to hospital information systems,” the authors wrote.
China has deployed patrol robots in some hospitals which can check temperatures, as well as disinfect people, in order to relieve the pressure on frontline medical staff.
“By networking existing security systems with facial recognition software, it is possible to retrace contacts of infected individuals to alert others who might be at risk of infection. It is important, however, to introduce appropriate rules to respect privacy,” the authors wrote.
Robot technologies could also be deployed to assist with diagnostic testing initiatives, according to the authors. For example, autonomous drones or ground vehicles could be used to transport medical samples, as well as deliver medicines to infected patients. Robotics could also have other uses in the area of diagnostics.
“For initial diagnostic testing for COVID-19, most countries recommend collecting and testing swabs,” the authors wrote in the study. “This involves sample collection, handling, transfer, and testing. During a major outbreak, a key challenge is a lack of qualified staff to swab patients and process test samples. Automated or robot-assisted swabbing may speed up the process, reduce the risk of infection, and free up staff for other tasks.”
“Some people do not develop symptoms of the virus or harbor the virus at the moment of testing. In these cases, a blood test to check for antibody appearance could be crucial and used to identify silent infections,” they said. “Automating the process of drawing blood for laboratory tests could also relieve medical staff from a task with a high risk of exposure.”
The experts say robots could even help to ease the burden of isolation during long periods of quarantine, which can potentially lead to mental health problems.
“To address this issue, social robots could be deployed to provide continued social interactions and adherence to treatment regimes without fear of spreading disease,” the authors 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 the interaction.”
Despite the significant potential of robots to address some of the challenges presented by outbreaks of infectious diseases, the authors stress that without sustained research and development initiatives, little progress will be made in this field.
“Without a sustainable approach to research, history will repeat itself, and robots will not be ready for the next incident,” they wrote.