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Engineers, Computer Scientists Say COVID-19 Outbreak Highlights Potential of Robots

In a new editorial a team of engineers and computer scientists argue that the current pandemic moment ought to serve as a wake-up call for society and the public health community to embrace the opportunities of robotics.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed a number of weaknesses in the world’s healthcare systems and in the global economy. In a new editorial a team of engineers and computer scientists argue that the current pandemic moment ought to serve as a wake-up call for society and the public health community to embrace the opportunities of robotics.

The editorial, which appeared in Science Robotics, was written by the journal’s founding editor, Guang-Zhong Yang, PhD, and colleagues from around the world. Yang is a professor and dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in China.

In the piece, Yang and his co-authors wrote that despite occasional attention to the potential role of robotics in public health emergencies, little has been done to turn the vast potential into reality.

“The experiences with the (2015) Ebola outbreak identified a broad spectrum of use cases, but funding for multidisciplinary research, in partnership with agencies and industry, to meet these use cases remains expensive, rare, and directed to other applications,” Yang and colleagues wrote.

The editorial lays out a long list of areas where robots could assist in or take over the work of health care professionals.

“Robots have the potential to be deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls,” they wrote.

For instance, robots could leverage ultraviolet (UV) light devices to help disinfect high-touch surfaces in hospitals, reducing the need for disinfection by hospital workers, and thereby also reducing the risk to those workers.

Tools like thermal sensors and facial recognition software could help ease the burden of mass screenings in high-traffic places like airports by allowing robots to take on significant portions of the task.

Robots could also be trained to swab, or assist in swabbing, patients’ noses and throats in order to test for diseases like COVID-19. Such a process could be more efficient and also reduce the risk to healthcare professionals.

However, Yang and colleagues write that the benefits of robotics can extend beyond the health care sector. For instance, robots could be used to assist in manufacturing and other essential services at times of mandatory quarantines and social distancing. However, in many of these areas, additional research would be needed before robots could complete the needed work.

“COVID-19 has affected manufacturing and the economy throughout the world,” they wrote.

“This highlights the need for more research into remote operation for a broad array of applications requiring dexterous manipulation—from manufacturing to remotely operating power or waste treatment plants.”

Yang and colleagues said serious, long-term funding and research will be needed if robots are to take on a larger and more meaningful role in this and future pandemics. They say that research can’t just be about engineering, though; it must also include input from epidemiologists and others in the medical and public health communities.

“By fostering a fusion of engineering and infectious disease professionals with dedicated funding we can be ready when (not if) the next pandemic arrives,” they concluded.