Medical robots to the rescue in the battle against Coronavirus

COVID-19 has not just added to the already heavy workload of healthcare professionals around the globe; it has also created the additional concern of medical workers getting infected due to direct contact with patients.

This past week, as post-detection and quarantine care began to take precedence in India’s fight against Coronavirus, India’s engineers and technology innovators have come up with ideas that look like the stuff of science-fiction.

Propeller Technologies, a Tiruchi software company, unveiled its Zafi and Zafi Medic robots on March 29 at the city’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital, equipped to deliver food and medicines to COVID-19 patients under quarantine. On April 3, Kochi-based Asimov Robotics debuted its KARMI-Bot, an autonomous robot that performs functions similar to those of Zafi, but with the added feature of being able to disinfect the premises using ultra-violet radiation.

Medical robots to the rescue in the battle against Coronavirus

Earlier, the Sawai Man Singh (SMS) Government Hospital, Jaipur, tested locally-manufactured humanoid ‘Sona 2.5’ to deliver food and medicines to Coronavirus patients. And Delhi firm PerSapien has come up with Minus Corona UV Bot, developed to enable sterilisation of hospital corridors, wards, ICUs and patient rooms without exposing anybody to the contaminated environment, using ultra-violet light. As the fight against Coronavirus intensifies, affordable and accessible automation is clearly going to play an important role in healthcare.

A global movement
  • Germany: robots advise customers at supermarkets about appropriate behaviour, such as panic-buying, and gathering in crowds.
  • Italy: Six robots stationed at Circolo Hospital, Varese, monitor parameters from equipment in the room, relaying them to hospital staff. The robots have touch-screen faces that allow patients to record messages and send them to doctors.
  • USA: Delivery service Postmates uses delivery robots to deliver food to customers.
  • China: Robots have been used in various verticals; to dispense hand sanitiser, trays of prepared meals, disinfect the streets and delivery of groceries to those unable to source masks.
  • Belgium: Video-conferencing bots by ZoraBots at nursing homes help the elderly stay in touch with loved ones.
  • South Africa: Tech company Netcare uses UV light robots to sanitise hospital facilities.

Evolving role

Besides being used in military and intelligence operations, robotics has been the disruptor in a wide range of industries, especially in heavy engineering and manufacturing. In India, which the International Federation of Robotics ranks as 11th in annual installations of industrial robots globally, these machines are being used in fields as disparate as education, complex surgery, and even as a solution to manual scavenging.

That said, the alert over the pandemic has united several key supplemental technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), predictive diagnostics and telemedicine in the shape of medical robots.

“We’d already experienced the wide-ranging impact of the Nipah virus in Kerala, and seen how risky it was for healthcare workers. That is why we were able to quickly adapt the robots when the COVID-19 pandemic alert was issued,” says T Jayakrishnan, founder and CEO of Asimov Robotics. The company made waves on social media recently with a video of its two Sayabot androids dispensing cleaning materials and displaying information related to the Coronavirus.

Quarantine ‘nurses’

For Propeller Technologies, the nationwide lockdown turned out to be an opportunity to re-programme its inventory of 12 school-oriented robots into medical assistants in quarantine wards.

“We are experts in conveying technology in the easiest way to school students, with robots that help to bridge the gap between innovations and their real-time applications,” says S Mohamed Aashik Rahman, CEO, Propeller Technologies. The voice-interactive Zafi robot was originally designed to act as an explainer for school subjects, and meant to be delivered to clients in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. When the lockdown barred long-distance travel, the engineering team decided to repurpose the robots for a medical scenario instead.

Medical robots to the rescue in the battle against Coronavirus

While Zafi has a payload of eight kilograms and can act as a medical assistant for contact-less consultations, Zafi Medic is an all-terrain robot that can carry meals and supplies of up to 20 kilograms, and can be controlled from a range of one kilometre with live view support.

“We all decided to use these robots to assist doctors, nurses and policemen, as our contribution to disaster preparedness,” he says. Once the pandemic alert is withdrawn, the robots will be absorbed back into their educational line of work, adds Rahman. Reprogramming required the rectification of a few errors that made it more user-friendly for doctors. “We have added voice control and manual switches to allow them to control the robot effectively,” he says. The robots are wrapped in cling film before they are sent out to the wards. “The film will keep the machines safe from infection, as it can be easily replaced after missions,” says Rahman.

Zafi Medic was designed within two days, and will move meals and supplies to homes where group quarantine has been announced.

Nuanced care

Jayakrishnan says that healthcare has to be more nuanced during contagious diseases. While humanoids like Sayabot can raise awareness and automate sanitisation processes at the grassroots, quarantine wards too can benefit from semi-autonomous care given by robotic assistants. “The empty ward is first mapped by KARMI-Bot, and then it’s directed towards functions like dispensing food and medicines on time, according to the specific patient, remote monitoring of the ward, video-conferencing with doctors, and auto self-disinfection,” he says.

The self-charging KARMI-Bot has a payload of 25 kilograms, and moves both autonomously and through manual controls.

To become widely available out of extraordinary situations like pandemics, medical robots have to be priced reasonably. “The cost of these machines will ultimately depend on the volume. If we make more of them, they will be become more affordable,” says Jayakrishnan, who hasn’t fixed a price for the KARMI-Bot yet.

“We spent around ₹80,000 on each of our Zafi robots, but to keep them updated, we will need more tech inputs, which will raise their price,” says Rahman. “But I feel it is more eco-friendly to create multi-purpose and adaptable robots for long-term use.”

Making a difference

Robots have already begun making a difference to medical care in hospitals around the globe, especially in niches like sensory prostheses for amputees, orthoses (exo-skeletons) to help correct or assist physical movement, targeted micro-robots to deliver medication to a specific part within the body and so on.

They may never become as well-known as R2-D2, that got its own billing in Star Wars, or KITT, the talking TransAm car of the detective series Knight Rider, but they are among the many unsung heroes of man’s fight against disease.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 11:48:31 PM |

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