Engineers have developed robots, companies have been founded, and markets created to help with these kinds of tasks. Yet we don’t see these robots around us in our daily lives, even in the current pandemic. I know the coronavirus is motivating roboticists to develop robots that can really help in such situations. And I hope it’ll help us deploy robots to serve in more meaningful ways in the future, too.
Protecting from infection
Let’s start with healthcare. If nurses and doctors get sick from their patients, they can’t come to work. Even worse, if they transmit an infection to their patients, the virus spreads rapidly and our healthcare system is pushed to a breaking point.
Robotics has developed solutions for the healthcare system for many years, but not from the perspective of a pandemic. Robots have been used in hospitals to connect doctors from far away with their patients, verbally and visually. Up to now, the selling point of these systems was to allow doctors to examine their patients without spending time travelling. But when there’s a pandemic, it’s about something else: protecting the doctor, and patient, from potential infection.
For nearly two decades now, surgeons have been using robots to perform minimally invasive surgery on patients remotely – usually from within just a few metres, as the surgeon is present in the operating theatre. The company that pioneered this approach now has 5,500 robotic surgery systems in clinics around the world which have performed more than 5 million procedures. The marketing strategy here has been to promote minimally invasive surgery, as patients recover faster from such procedures. The fact that these systems eliminate direct physical contact with the patient was previously a secondary benefit – but this is exactly what’s crucial during a pandemic. COVID-19 will fundamentally change how surgeons look at direct patient interaction.
During lockdown, many of us have stepped up online purchasing. A few companies have developed walking or wheeled robots to bridge the last few metres between delivery van and home. ETH has also been active in this area. Previously this was about making it possible to deliver to many houses simultaneously, using robots to increase efficiency. Today what’s key is that these robots allow physical distancing between delivery people and customers.