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Infectious Diseases

Updated 07 April 2020

Could robots be deployed to front line in fighting the coronavirus?

New generations of robots that are able to continuously work and clean, not only removing dust but also truly sanitising and/or sterilising all surfaces, could be developed.

Robots can provide significant help in the fight against coronavirus, experts say.

Their uses include: patient care such as telemedicine and decontamination; logistics such as delivery and handling contaminated waste; monitoring compliance with voluntary quarantines, and helping people maintain social connections, according to a paper published March 25 in the journal Science Robotics.

"Already, we have seen robots being deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls," the authors wrote.

Henrik Christensen, director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at the University of California, San Diego, is the lead author.

Other preventative measures

His team noted that robot-controlled ultraviolet (UV) surface disinfection has already been used because Covid-19 spreads not only from person to person but also via contaminated surfaces.

"Opportunities lie in intelligent navigation and detection of high-risk, high-touch areas, combined with other preventative measures," the authors said in a university news release. "New generations of large, small, micro- and swarm robots that are able to continuously work and clean [i.e., not only removing dust but also truly sanitising/sterilising all surfaces] could be developed."

In addition, they said "social robots" could foster interaction and adherence to treatment regimens without spreading disease.

"This is a challenging area of development because social interactions require building and maintaining complex models of people, including their knowledge, beliefs, emotions, as well as the context and environment of interaction," they added.

Sustained research into robots

Christensen and his colleagues predicted that the coronavirus pandemic could be the tipping point of how organisations operate.

"Rather than cancelling large international exhibitions and conferences, new forms of gathering – virtual rather than in-person attendance – may increase," they explained. "Virtual attendees may become accustomed to remote engagement via a variety of local robotic avatars and controls."

They also predicted that the pandemic's impact may drive sustained research in robotics to address infectious disease risks.

"Without a sustainable approach to research and evaluation, history will repeat itself, and technology robots will not be ready to assist for the next incident," they concluded.

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