Robots can play vital role in Covid-19 fight

15th October 2020 By: Donna Slater - Creamer Media Contributing Editor and Photographer

Robots have seen increased use during Covid-19, especially within the human assistance role in the healthcare sector, according to panellists who spoke during the SingularityU South Africa Summit 2020 on October 14.

Nigeria-based robot company Reach Robots CEO Silas Adekunle and Denmark-based service robot company GoBe Robots sales and community VP Thomas Willemann spoke during a session on “Robots to the rescue during Covid-19”.

The outbreak of a novel disease such as Covid-19 led to many people being isolated and quarantined, thereby resulting in people having to avoid or reduce human-to-human contact to an unprecedented degree.

Adekunle and Willemann concurred that interest in robots, and interest in their companies’ products had increased significantly during the global first wave of Covid-19.

Willemann said that, while video conferencing and virtual meetings have been used more to facilitate remote working during Covid-19, so too has the need for people to have more interactive forms of communication, which is where GoBe’s service-type robots can come into play.

These robots are designed to facilitate human-to-human interaction in a more interactive manner, making the virtually-hosted person feel as though they are more present than simply being on a computer monitor or television screen.

As such, GoBe robots have been deployed in healthcare facilities to assist with patient interaction and remote diagnosis.

“How GoBe robots work is that the user is in one location and the robot is in another location and connection is made through the Internet”, he says, pointing out that the technology can be used anywhere where there is an Internet connection.

The conventional alternative for healthcare professionals is to dress in extensive personal protective equipment and continually go through disinfection processes as they meet with multiple patients.

“With a robot, they can just enter a room [virtually], interact with a patient in a very direct and intuitive manner and then exit and proceed to the next room,” says Willemann. He adds that, in using the technology in this way, healthcare professionals are reducing the risk of spreading disease because human-to-human interaction is limited.

Meanwhile, Adekunle says that it is a “no-brainer that [the use of] robotics and automation will keep increasing”, because right at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it became evident that some of the countries were further advanced in their robotics journeys, which was evidenced through the pace and extent to which they could adapt robotics and deploy them to assist in the fight against the disease.

“China for example, being at the centre of the epidemic and where quarantining became increasingly important, started using robotics to deliver food in hospitals and other related things,” he says.

Further, Adekunle points out that, from a global perspective, we are starting to move from robots being used mostly in research laboratories, to robots working in the real world and in more busy environments with greater external influences.

“However, we are still not at the point where robots will go into complex environments with lots of people moving around, but robots are starting to work in semi-structured environments,” he says.

In Europe for example, Adekunle highlights, a company has been delivering robots that dispense ultraviolet lights to disinfect hospital rooms, which also brought with it a degree of automation.