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By all accounts, global societies were ill-prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. Despite major technological advances in nearly every sector, their capacity to protect workers and operations have fallen short. But that doesn’t mean these advances have failed completely. In fact, digital innovations from videoconferencing to online education have allowed many to transition fairly well during this crisis. And in some cases, new uses for robots are also being identified that can help in this time of need. This is not only true for healthcare workers but for all segments of society.

In recent years, the uses for robots have spread. Amazon and iRobot’s Roomba perhaps led the way commercially. But today, many other uses for robots are being explored, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for better robotics in healthcare is certainly evident in numerous areas. But likewise, robotics can help us in numerous ways in other industry sectors as well as in our private lives. Though hardly a silver lining, it does appear the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that robotics offers significant potential. And efforts to advance robotics in healthcare and other areas should be seriously pursued.

A robot hand holding some healthcare images
One answer to COVID-19 decontamination: robotics in healthcare.

“Robots have the potential to be deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls. As epidemics escalate, the potential roles of robotics are becoming increasingly clear.” – Guang-Zhong Yang, Founding Editor of Science Robotics

Robotics in Healthcare – An Obvious Need

Amidst the coronavirus spread, we have come to appreciate the vulnerabilities of our healthcare systems. At the same time, we have also recognized the incredible commitments that millions of healthcare workers are making. The risks of coronavirus contamination are substantial for these individuals. And it stands to reason that robotics in healthcare could markedly reduce these threats. The following are a list of areas where robotics in healthcare could help us tremendously.

  • Disease Prevention Efforts – Robotics in healthcare are now being developed that can help with disinfection procedures. Specifically, one of the uses of robots involve ultraviolet light decontamination of surfaces. This would naturally reduce the potential for infectious disease spread. At the same time, however, it would also protect healthcare providers and cleaning staff from disease.
  • Diagnosis and Screening Procedures – In China, one of the uses of robots involved checking individuals’ temperature using drone surveillance. This could also be employed on a wider scale globally to better detect areas where infectious risk was high. At the same time, robotics in healthcare could employ facial recognition technologies. In doing so, contacts of high-risk individuals could be traced and notified, assuming proper privacy protections are in place.
  • Patient Care and Management – Naturally, administering coronavirus tests not only takes valuable healthcare worker time but also imposes risks. Thus, developing robotics for healthcare that can facilitate nasal swabs, specimen collection, and analysis could help. Likewise, oversight of patient care through vital sign monitoring would be other important uses for robots in these settings. These uses along with advances in telemedicine could offer major improvements in patient care.

“Is the robot acting as a medium for a doctor or another health care provider or professional? Or is the robot in itself supposed to be running some sort of task? Certainly, making them less threatening to people is important.” – Julie Carpenter, Roboticist and Research Fellow at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Uses for Robots Beyond Healthcare

While the previously mentioned areas for robotics in healthcare are important during a pandemic, others also exist. Without question, many sectors have been tremendously disrupted as a result of the coronavirus spread. And all of our social lives have been impacted as well. From this perspective, many other additional uses for robots need to be considered also. The following are just a few of these uses for robots that should be investigated further.

  • Logistics and Deliveries – While these uses for robots have been explored for years, improvements could certainly be made. Logistics related to medical supplies reflects one area were robotics in healthcare could be advanced. But also, food delivery and other supplies could reduce infection exposure if better robotic systems were developed. One company, Starship Robotics, is already testing these types of robots for grocery delivery currently.
  • Legal Policy Monitoring – from border controls to enforcement of social isolation measures, uses for robots exist. These were used in China to some extent, but they could be advanced greatly to ensure compliance. By using robotic drones, such measures can be easily employed and monitored remotely. And by putting these safeguards in place, public health could be better served in all countries.
  • Social Connectivity – Social connections between doctors and patients are already be used with robotics in healthcare via telemedicine. But there is significant room for improvement. One of the important uses for robots in social isolation situations involves facilitating social connectivity. Through robots, individuals can connect with friends and family members, which can reduce mental health risks.
  • Systems Continuity – As we have realized, social isolation in the current pandemic has disrupted major systems. This includes businesses, banks, entertainment, and service sectors. Though each sector is unique, uses for robotics exist in all of them that can reduce these discontinuities. If robotics in healthcare can be successful, then robots can be developed for other industries as well.

 “People start to reflect, for situations such as this, how robots can be used not only to help with social distancing but also for increasing social interaction.” – Guang-Zhong Yang

Robots Are Our Friends, Not Foes

In the past, many have been concerned about the role robots will play in society. The varied uses for robots to date have been seen as a threat to employment opportunities for some workers. But as the pandemic has shown with robotics in healthcare and beyond, this is not the case. Rather than seeing robots as replacements, they should be seen as facilitators and enhancers. By allowing each of us to manage our responsibilities better and more safely, robots offer tremendous value. And they are something we can certainly benefit from in crises such as the one we currently face.

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