How Robots Became Essential Workers in the COVID-19 Response

Autonomous machines proved their worth in hospitals, offices, and on city streets

6 min read
A fully automated swab robot uses computer vision and machine learning to identify the perfect target spot inside the person’s throat; then a robotic arm with a long swab reaches in to collect the sample
Photo: University of Southern Denmark
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As the coronavirus emergency exploded into a full-blown pandemic in early 2020, forcing countless businesses to shutter, robot-making companies found themselves in an unusual situation: Many saw a surge in orders. Robots don't need masks, can be easily disinfected, and, of course, they don't get sick.


A robot, developed by Asimov Robotics to spread awareness about the coronavirus, holds a tray with face masks and sanitizer. A robot, developed by Asimov Robotics to spread awareness about the coronavirus, holds a tray with face masks and sanitizer. Photo: Sivaram V/Reuters

An army of automatons has since been deployed all over the world to help with the crisis: They are monitoring patients, sanitizing hospitals, making deliveries, and helping frontline medical workers reduce their exposure to the virus. Not all robots operate autonomously—many, in fact, require direct human supervision, and most are limited to simple, repetitive tasks. But robot makers say the experience they've gained during this trial-by-fire deployment will make their future machines smarter and more capable. These photos illustrate how robots are helping us fight this pandemic—and how they might be able to assist with the next one.

DROID TEAM

A squad of robots serves as the first line of defense against person-to-person transmission at a medical center in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

A squad of robots serves as the first line of defense against person-to-person transmission at a medical center in Kigali, Rwanda. Patients walking into the facility get their temperature checked by the machines, which are equipped with thermal cameras atop their heads. Developed by UBTech Robotics, in China, the robots also use their distinctive appearance—they resemble characters out of a Star Wars movie—to get people's attention and remind them to wash their hands and wear masks.

A UBTech Robotics droid takes a temperature check in Rwanda. Photo: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

SAY “AAH"

To speed up COVID-19 testing, a team of Danish doctors and engineers at the University of Southern Denmark and at Lifeline Robotics is developing a fully automated swab robot. It uses computer vision and machine learning to identify the perfect target spot inside the person's throat; then a robotic arm with a long swab reaches in to collect the sample—all done with a swiftness and consistency that humans can't match. In this photo, one of the creators, Esben Østergaard, puts his neck on the line to demonstrate that the robot is safe.

a team of Danish doctors and engineers at the University of Southern Denmark and at Lifeline Robotics is developing a fully automated swab robot. Photo: University of Southern Denmark

GERM ZAPPER

After six of its doctors became infected with the coronavirus, the Sassarese hospital in Sardinia, Italy, tightened its safety measures. It also brought in the robots. The machines, developed by UVD Robots, use lidar to navigate autonomously. Each bot carries an array of powerful short-wavelength ultraviolet-C lights that destroy the genetic material of viruses and other pathogens after a few minutes of exposure. Now there is a spike in demand for UV-disinfection robots as hospitals worldwide deploy them to sterilize intensive care units and operating theaters.

UVD Robot uses lidar to navigate autonomously. Each bot carries an array of powerful short-wavelength ultraviolet-C lights that destroy the genetic material of viruses and other pathogens after a few minutes of exposure. Photo: UVD Robots

RUNNING ERRANDS

In medical facilities, an ideal role for robots is taking over repetitive chores so that nurses and physicians can spend their time doing more important tasks. At Shenzhen Third People's Hospital, in China, a robot called Aimbot drives down the hallways, enforcing face-mask and social-distancing rules and spraying disinfectant. At a hospital near Austin, Texas, a humanoid robot developed by Diligent Robotics fetches supplies and brings them to patients' rooms. It repeats this task day and night, tirelessly, allowing the hospital staff to spend more time interacting with patients.

Moxi (left) and Aimbot Photos, left: Diligent Robotics; Right: UBTech Robotics

THE DOCTOR IS IN

Nurses and doctors at Circolo Hospital in Varese, in northern Italy—the country's hardest-hit region—use robots as their avatars, enabling them to check on their patients around the clock while minimizing exposure and conserving protective equipment. The robots, developed by Chinese firm Sanbot, are equipped with cameras and microphones and can also access patient data like blood oxygen levels. Telepresence robots, originally designed for offices, are becoming an invaluable tool for medical workers treating highly infectious diseases like COVID-19, reducing the risk that they'll contract the pathogen they're fighting against.

Nurses and doctors at Circolo Hospital in Varese, in northern Italy\u2014the country\u2019s hardest-hit region\u2014use robots as their avatars, enabling them to check on their patients around the clock while minimizing exposure and conserving protective equipment. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

HELP FROM ABOVE

Zipline drone Photo: Zipline

Authorities in several countries attempted to use drones to enforce lockdowns and social-distancing rules, but the effectiveness of such measures remains unclear. A better use of drones was for making deliveries. In the United States, startup Zipline deployed its fixed-wing autonomous aircraft to connect two medical facilities 17 kilometers apart. For the staff at the Huntersville Medical Center, in North Carolina, masks, gowns, and gloves literally fell from the skies. The hope is that drones like Zipline's will one day be able to deliver other kinds of critical materials, transport test samples, and distribute drugs and vaccines.

A Zipline drone delivers supplies to the Huntersville Medical Center, in North Carolina. Photos: Zipline

SPECIAL DELIVERY

It's not quite a robot takeover, but the streets and sidewalks of dozens of cities around the world have seen a proliferation of hurrying wheeled machines. Delivery robots are now in high demand as online orders continue to skyrocket.

In Hamburg, the six-wheeled robots developed by Starship Technologies navigate using cameras, GPS, and radar to bring groceries to customers.

In Hamburg, the six-wheeled robots developed by Starship Technologies navigate using cameras, GPS, and radar to bring groceries to customers Photo: Christian Charisius/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

In Medellín, Colombia, a startup called Rappi deployed a fleet of robots, built by Kiwibot, to deliver takeout to people in lockdown.

 In Medell\u00edn, Colombia, a startup called Rappi deployed a fleet of robots, built by Kiwibot, to deliver takeout to people in lockdown Photo: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

China's JD.com, one of the country's largest e-commerce companies, is using 20 robots to transport goods in Changsha, Hunan province; each vehicle has 22 separate compartments, which customers unlock using face authentication.

China\u2019s JD.com, one of the country\u2019s largest e-commerce companies, is using 20 robots to transport goods in Changsha, Hunan province Photos: TPG/Getty Images

LIFE THROUGH ROBOTS

Robots can't replace real human interaction, of course, but they can help people feel more connected at a time when meetings and other social activities are mostly on hold.

In Ostend, Belgium, ZoraBots brought one of its waist-high robots, equipped with cameras, microphones, and a screen, to a nursing home, allowing residents like Jozef Gouwy to virtually communicate with loved ones despite a ban on in-person visits.

In Ostend, Belgium, ZoraBots brought one of its waist-high robots, equipped with cameras, microphones, and a screen, to a nursing home, allowing residents like Jozef Gouwy to virtually communicate with loved ones despite a ban on in-person visits Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

In Manila, nearly 200 high school students took turns “teleporting" into a tall wheeled robot, developed by the school's robotics club, to walk on stage during their graduation ceremony.

In Manila, nearly 200 high school students took turns \u201cteleporting\u201d into a tall wheeled robot, developed by the school\u2019s robotics club, to walk on stage during their graduation ceremony Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

And while Japan's Chiba Zoological Park was temporarily closed due to the pandemic, the zoo used an autonomous robotic vehicle called RakuRo, equipped with 360-degree cameras, to offer virtual tours to children quarantined at home.

While Japan\u2019s Chiba Zoological Park was temporarily closed due to the pandemic, the zoo used an autonomous robotic vehicle called RakuRo, equipped with 360-degree cameras, to offer virtual tours to children quarantined at home Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

SENTRY ROBOTS

Offices, stores, and medical centers are adopting robots as enforcers of a new coronavirus code.

At Fortis Hospital in Bangalore, India, a robot called Mitra uses a thermal camera to perform a preliminary screening of patients.

At Fortis Hospital in Bangalore, India, a robot called Mitra uses a thermal camera to perform a preliminary screening of patients. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

In Tunisia, the police use a tanklike robot to patrol the streets of its capital city, Tunis, verifying that citizens have permission to go out during curfew hours.

In Tunisia, the police use a tanklike robot to patrol the streets of its capital city, Tunis, verifying that citizens have permission to go out during curfew hours. Photo: Khaled Nasraoui/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

And in Singapore, the Bishan-Ang Moh Kio Park unleashed a Spot robot dog, developed by Boston Dynamics, to search for social-distancing violators. Spot won't bark at them but will rather play a recorded message reminding park-goers to keep their distance.

In Singapore, the Bishan-Ang Moh Kio Park unleashed a Spot robot dog (below), developed by Boston Dynamics, to search for social-distancing violators. Spot won\u2019t bark at them but will rather play a recorded message reminding park-goers to keep their distance. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

This article appears in the October 2020 print issue as “How Robots Became Essential Workers."

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