28 October 2020

The Role of Robots in COVID-19 Era

By Dr Hudyjaya Siswoyo Jo

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in every single way. Our daily routines have changed and everyone is trying to adapt to the new normal of maintaining physical distancing, putting extra precaution on personal hygiene, as well as minimising our activities that involve close contact with other individuals.

While we are doing our part to help combat the spread of the disease, there are groups of people who inevitably still need to expose themselves to the potential infection hazard. Laboratory scientists who are running the virus test have to work around the clock to keep up with the amount of test demand each day.

Apart from spending extra working hours, medical personnel need to be in close contact with the infected individuals when testing and treating them, not to mention enduring through the discomfort of being trapped in the medical grade PPE the whole day. So what can technology do to help?

For decades, technological advancements have offered limitless assistance to human beings. We have been enjoying the help of technology in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Now that we are tested in this difficult time, it is timely for us to utilise technologies in helping us to fight against this infectious disease.

With the new routines, requirements and procedures in preventing the spread and treating the disease, researchers and technological companies all over the world have been exploring the use of robots for different tasks. Robots have been tested and deployed in applications such as disinfection, specimen handling, patient care, sample collection, and even law enforcement.

UVD Robot, a Denmark-based robotics company, has developed and produced a range of fully autonomous ultraviolet (UV) disinfection robots that are able to disinfect places like hospitals, airports, schools, hotels, and other public facilities.

Although UV disinfection is proven to be effective, the application of UV disinfection cannot be carried out by human as excessive exposure of direct UV lights can be detrimental to human health. Therefore, the role of robot in performing autonomous disinfection is essential and effective.

In handling virus test specimen, Flow Robotics introduced a specimen handling robot dubbed ‘flowbot ONE’. The robot is able to automate the testing process by automating the sample handling and pipetting process in the medical laboratory.

The use of this robot greatly reduces the risk of laboratory personnel from being exposed to the live virus as well as to minimise the risk of accidents and mishaps during the testing process. Besides that, the robot is proven to increase the speed and capacity of testing process as compared to manual handling by human.

Closer to home, Malaysian robotics company DF Automation developed a delivery robot by the name of ‘Makcik Kiah 19’ or MCK19 to assist the hospitals in delivering food and medicines to COVID-19 patients in the ward. The robot helps to reduce the workload and eliminate the risk of healthcare workers being infected by the COVID positive patients. Using robots in place of human also means that there will be less PPE being used which is certainly helpful in addressing the shortage of supplies.

With the examples above, we can see the opportunities and advantages that are offered by automation and robotics technologies. This is in tune with the recent survey findings by McKinsey Global Business Executives Survey in July this year. The survey shows that due to digitisation of business processes, 68% of the companies would hire more people in the area of technology and automation during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In particular, 35% of the respondents need more workers who are skilled in automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to support their increasing automated processes during the pandemic. Though all of us have been impacted by this situation one way or another, looking at the bright side, the situation helps to accelerate the development and open up opportunities of technological adoption in many aspects of our daily life.

Dr Hudyjaya Siswoyo Jo is a senior lecturer with the School of Engineering at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at hsiswoyo@swinburne.edu.my.