A Jetsons-like future might be far away, but robots are already helping make life easier for us. That car you drive? It was probably welded by robots. Militaries and police forces use robots to defuse explosives. You’ll even find doctors turn to robots for carrying out surgeries. And now, with the Coronavirus pandemic, there’s a new robotic gold rush in the offing – robots are, as you’d expect, immune to a virus (and easy to disinfect), making them eminently suitable for carrying out tasks that were once carried out by humans but are now deemed hazardous. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this pandemic could represent a watershed moment for robots, drones, and other automated machinery. Here’s how the world has already started using robots to deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic:
Singapore is using a robotic dog to enforce social distancing
Singapore has a sterling reputation for public safety and civic sense. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes need help to enforce rules. Which is why the Singapore government has enlisted Spot, a robotic dog built by Boston Dynamics, to remind visitors to a popular park of the need to maintain distance when out for a walk. Spot will be broadcasting a recorded message, and will also be using cameras to determine just how many visitors are in the park. Visitors need not worry about privacy, though, as Spot will not be able to identify or track individuals!
Amazon has a new robot to disinfect supermarket aisles
Careful, creative, or creepy? Amazon says it uses its vast camera system for contact tracing and to try to enforce social distancing. It’s testing a UV-emitting robot that may one day in the future disinfect surfaces in warehouses or Whole Foods. https://t.co/dgN5YCucVM pic.twitter.com/kXvclrsIXO
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) May 10, 2020
Recently shown on 60 Minutes, Amazon’s new robot is kitted out with banks of UV-C lamps which will sanitise supermarket aisles as it rolls along. While there’s no news on when this will actually be seen outside a trial environment, Amazon is also using AI and computer vision technology to keep employees safe at work. The retail giant, which has attracted a lot of criticism in the past over its safety practices, says it will use AI and cameras to enforce social distancing at its facilities.
Robots are helping out in hospitals across the world
At this very moment, there are thousands of robots in hospitals across the world, helping out with tasks that would normally have been the responsibility of human employees. From taking temperatures of suspected COVID-19 patients and allowing doctors to interview patients safely, to delivering food inside wards, there’s a boom in hospitals relying on robots to reduce medical personnel’s exposure to the virus. Perhaps the best example is at the Wuhan Wuchang Smart Field Hospital. This hospital, which is part of a joint effort between Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, China Mobile and robotics firm CloudMinds, offers a glimpse of what the future holds for robotics, automation and IoT: Automated thermometers check patients, smart wearables are used to track vital signs, and robots are used to deliver medication, disinfect rooms, dispose medical waste, and even entertain patients.
Drones are delivering medical supplies
— Chris Fox (@thisisFoxx) April 24, 2020
Police and civic authorities in many jurisdictions across the world have turned to drones to track and warn citizens who might not be adhering to social distancing guidelines. Taking this a step further, cities in China are now using drones to transport medical samples to labs, and even to enable safe delivery of medical and food supplies – In one case, a short drone flight has helped avoid what could be a several-hours-long drive. In the UK as well, the NHS is exploring the use of drones to deliver supplies, with trials (using commercial drones that can carry a payload of 100kg up to 1000km away) taking place in the Isle of Wight.
The restaurant industry is turning to robots
The restaurant industry has been one of the worst-affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To survive, many have turned to food deliveries, but even that carries some risk for consumers (and more for delivery personnel). But in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a team of Rev-1 autonomous vehicles (operated by local startup, Refraction AI) is busy loading up orders to deliver them to hungry customers. The robotic vehicles can operate in both car and bike lanes, are designed to cope with Michigan’s harsh winters, and have been modified to fit UV sterilizing food compartments to help ease any concerns about contamination.
These are just a few examples of robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles being used to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. But this could just be the start. With the virus not expected to go away anytime soon, it’s possible this could herald a new wave of remote and autonomous technology that slowly seeps into every aspect of our lives.