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Are robots helping us cope with Covid-19?

Written by

Neil Martin

Neil Martin

I’m the first one to bang on about robots helping out during these terrible times. The theory goes that robots have done their part, mainly due to the fact that they can’t catch Covid-19 and do not spread germs. Sounds great. But, I decided to have a look at some initiatives where robots have been called upon to help, just so that I can sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that I was right (hopefully!).

The feedback we get is that one result of the hideous Covid-19, is that people are no longer afraid of robots, not least because they have seen with their own eyes how they can be utilised in difficult medical environments. 

Previously, robots were the big bad villains, ready to run off with everyone’s jobs and create themselves into a master race which would enslave humankind. It’s a well-worn cliche, continually exacerbated by a Hollywood that has a single plot line where robots are concerned. 

Yet as anyone in the industrial and commercial robot sector knows, Terminators are extremely thin on the ground. Indeed, go to an average robot trade show and you will see benign industrial devices that resemble metal arms which can do all manner of things, including lifting, assembly and packing - all the dull repetitive jobs that nowadays no-one wants to do. 

Where robots score highly is when it comes to contagious diseases. They are of course not human and not vulnerable to germs. Anyone can appreciate that if a hospital intensive care unit was totally staffed by robots, then there would be no need for PPE equipment, or isolation. 

We’re maybe still some way from that, but robots are making inroads into the medical sector, a transition helped by Covid-19. 

It's a fact recognised by the Munich-based International Federation of Robotics, whose General Secretary, Dr Susanne Bieller, told me at the start of the troubles, that “robots have a great potential of supporting us in the current corona pandemic.” 

Now that Covid-19 is settling down for a second round, like a very unwelcome house guest who’s refusing to budge, we arguably need robots more than ever. 

Bug killers

As for concrete examples of robots out there doing the business, the best place to start is with a Danish company called Blue Ocean Robotics

Its disinfection robot UVD has been in high demand since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and Chinese hospitals have ordered more than 2,000 UVD robots from the Danish manufacturer. The UVD uses ultraviolet light (UV-C) to kill harmful microorganisms.

The units operate in more than 40 countries, across Asia, Europe and the US. 

Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics, said: "We are now helping solve one of the biggest problems of our time, preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria with a robot that saves lives. The immediate demand has increased a lot with the outbreak of COVID-19. Existing customers buy many more units than before, and many new customers are ordering the UVD robots to fight coronavirus and other harmful microorganisms.” 

Blue Ocean Robotics said it has seen a growth in sales of more than 400% annually over the last two years.

The Danish robot moves autonomously around patient rooms and operating theatres - covering all critical surfaces with the right amount of UV-C light in order to kill specific viruses and bacteria. The more light the robot exposes to a surface, the more harmful microorganisms are destroyed. In a typical patient room, 99.99 % of all viruses and bacteria are killed within ten minutes.

Artificial intelligence

The advantages offered by AI in healthcare has led to a rise in funding for artificial intelligence and participation of larger companies in the acquisition of small companies, startups, and single technology firms. Venture capitalist investors have seen the concept of AI become mainstream and are investing in greater numbers.

The backdrop is that the COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous burden on the healthcare sector all over the world. Currently, hospitals are juggling due to limited resources and staff, which has hampered some surgeries and other medical procedures. 

To manage the patients affected by pandemic and other chronic illness, AI adoption is seeing high growth across the globe. 

For example, owing to the rising coronavirus cases globally, the US FDA has approved ICU-specific platform developed by CLEW Medical (Israel). The product was designed to offer COVID care teams with advance warning on patients at high risk of serious symptoms. It can also help the hospitals to increase the time available for intervening early and planning ahead. 

Retail industry

Robots are the obvious choice for an overstretched retail industry and they have come into their own when it comes to ecommerce and logistics. 

And a great example of this is the famous clothes brand GAP. 

The disruption caused by Covid-19 has encouraged the giant US clothing store GAP to up its use of robots.

GAP uses robots for logistics and warehousing industry duties, particularly assembling online orders.

Industry experts say this is just one example of how the pandemic is causing the logistics industry to think about how quickly it rolls-out robots. 

GAP recently said that it's using its warehouse to assemble orders, limiting human contact during the pandemic.

It now uses over 100 item-picking robots, up three times from when before the pandemic struck. When Covid-19 took hold, it not only had to close all its US stores (the company also owns the Banana Republic and Old Navy brands), but also had to cope with higher warehouse orders, yet less staff to fulfill them. 

The robot station sits at the end of a chute down which rolls goods from various online checkout carts. The robot’s arms are equipped with suction tools that collect each item, scans the barcode and places it in an appropriate bin. The items are then collected by a human worker for packing and delivery. 

There’s ten of the eight-foot tall robotic stations in Gap’s warehouse near Nashville, Tennessee and 20 near Columbus, Ohio. Each machine does the work of four people. 

GAP is not alone in sharting the predicament, with Amazon and Walmart all using more robots to cope with problems caused by the pandemic. 

The news illustrates how the pandemic may speed up automation in the retail industry. Companies including Gap and Amazon have long used such systems for a range of tasks, like moving items across warehouse floors. Various new technologies are capable of supplanting some cashier, box packing and item picking roles that employ millions of US workers, and the pandemic is giving vendors a chance to make their case.

inVia

There are many more examples of warehouse robots, not least inVia which has just been awarded the 2020 North American New Product Innovation Award from Frost & Sullivan, the business consulting firm. Known as the Robotics-as-a-Service, it's a goods-to-person solution designed to optimise the efficiency of pickers and sorters in warehouses. 

The warehouse robots are part of an integral system which also includes artificial intelligence (AI)-driven warehouse execution system (WES) software, and dedicated, proactive monitoring through its full-service robotics operations centre.

InVia's autonomous warehouse robots speed up workflows by assisting with gross manipulation tasks such as picking up an object and bringing it to the workers who pack, or sort the items into boxes to be shipped. 

Workers wear a smart device that displays inVia PickMate on their wrist, which tells them how many items to pick and sort into the set of orders. As a goods-to-person solution, inVia said that its system eliminates time-consuming walks across large warehouses and expensive manual errors. 

The high efficiency and accuracy enabled by the warehouse robots are not just limited to the picking task; they also handle the replenishment of goods, thereby improving the efficiency and accuracy of materials movement across warehouse operations.

Sankara Narayanan, Senior Industry Analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said:  "Unlike traditional systems that compel customers to conform or transform their warehouse to be compatible with them, inVia's flexible system conforms to existing warehouse environments and is adaptable to future demands. Customers can deploy the system quickly and cost-effectively, without the need for high upfront costs.

"A key differentiator has been inVia's ability to incorporate current Centers for Disease Control guidelines into its software in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It helps warehouses to be fully operational and productive with minimal staff to meet consumer expectations for on-time delivery.

"InVia has successfully changed market dynamics by introducing a cost-effective, affordable robotics solution that delivers comparable or even higher throughputs than possible with high-end systems. Besides, inVia enables a highly mobile and virtual environment, wherein no system is fixed or bolted to the floor. This allows its robots to be easily moved to a new location in a warehouse or to an entirely new facility as opposed to the shuttle systems in a fixed environment. Overall, inVia's unique RaaS business model and its robotics operations center enhance the customer value proposition and make it the RaaS provider of choice to warehouses across North America."

Drones

Drones are robots that fly and a big user of this technology is the agricultural industry and the latest market figures suggest that the agriculture drones market is expected to grow from USD1.2bn in 2020 to USD5.7bn. 

Key drivers are pressure on global food supply due to growing world population, the impact of Covid-19 and the increase in venture funding for the development of agriculture drones.

Hardware is expected to account for a larger share of the agriculture drones market during the forecast period. 

Drones can take aerial photos of crops and fields, and as they fly at heights lower than satellites, they can also take images with the centimeter-level resolution. 

And by now, a significant number of farmers have started experimenting with drones. This rise in the use of drones by farmers or agronomists would lead hardware to capture a major share of the market in the coming years.

A drone can be equipped with a navigation system and an autopilot system, including a camera, gives plenty of aerial options. And agriculture drones with GPS receivers recognize their position within a farm, which enables them to adjust operations to maximize productivity, or efficiency at that location.

Robots help fight coronavirus

As for how this technology will help fight Covid-19, one example are XPlanet drones and R80 robots which Chineses authorities are testing to see if they can be deployed to disinfect affected areas.

This, say the authorities, helps provide solutions for improving public hygiene and reducing the risk of virus transmission via contaminated surface contact.

According to XCloud, a total of 370 professional teams with over 2,600 XAG agricultural drones have voluntarily joined the disinfection operation, covering an area of 902 million square metres in China's 20 provinces.

What’s more, drones and robots are replacing hand sprayers to release disinfectant in public places. Infected zones, densely populated areas, epidemic prevention vehicles and waste collection points are the main targets that require site-specific disinfection to kill the virus.

Instead of operating independently, drone and robot can combine together to reap the benefits of ground air disinfection against novel coronavirus. Covering a much wider area from the air with variable flying speed, one XAG drone in a day can disinfect 600,000-700,000 square metres to maximum, a task would normally take 100 workers to complete. Also, with the ability to precisely control output, it consumes one fifth less disinfectant than traditional approaches such as handheld spraying.

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Previously, robots were the big bad villains, ready to run off with everyone’s jobs and create themselves into a master race which would enslave humankind. It’s a well-worn cliche, continually exacerbated by a Hollywood that has a single plot line where robots are concerned.

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