As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spiral, many countries are turning to robots to assist with hazardous tasks.
But experts suggest that in these challenging times robots should be playing an even greater role.
In an editorial published in the journal Science Robotics, they say robots currently used for other applications could be repurposed to handle dangerous tasks that involve a risk of infection.
The authors of the editorial, consisting of robotics experts across the globe, identified key areas where robots could lend assistance that would remove humans from harm's way during a pandemic.
This includes disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, patient care and disease management.
"Robots have the potential to be deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls," the researchers wrote.
They can be used to take temperatures of people in public areas or at ports of entry, collect nasal and throat samples for testing, act as telemedicine assistants, handle contaminated waste and even monitor compliance with voluntary quarantines.
More developed disinfecting robots could detect high-risk, high-touch areas and continuously work and clean, they said.
‘We weren’t prepared’
And the main message to come out of coronavirus pandemic is: We weren't prepared.
We could have been ready, and now we're trying to play catchup during a pandemic, the researchers say.
In the editorial, roboticist and founding editor of Science Robotics, Guang-Zhong Yang, explains how robots can play an even greater role in helping to combat the spread of infectious diseases.
"I don't think that we are ready this time, but hopefully with our collective efforts we can be more ready next time," said Yang, who is also dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Yang was travelling when coronavirus hit Shanghai and returned home at the peak of the outbreak. He quarantined himself in a hotel room for 14 days.
His temperature was checked twice a day by people at the hotel. But when he ordered food, a little robot would deliver it to his door.
"I'm a roboticist myself, and it's just quite surreal to have an experience as this," he said.
It's one of many examples showing how robots could prevent human contact from spreading the virus.
Yang, who did not test positive for the virus, said some developed robotic technologies are already helping, like robots being used for disinfecting hospitals and surfaces like plastic, metal and glass where the virus can live for up to 72 hours.
Remote presence robots
The editorial also addresses remote operations that allow work and socioeconomic functions to continue.
The authors call for robotics that could assist with manufacturing or operating power and waste treatment plants, doing the hands-on work and allowing people to remotely operate them.
Remote presence robots could also stand in the place of someone in a meeting, basically providing their presence through a video screen.
"COVID-19 may become the tipping point of how future organisations operate," the researchers wrote.
"Rather than cancelling large international exhibitions and conferences, new forms of gathering – virtual rather than in-person attendance – may increase. Virtual attendees may become accustomed to remote engagement via a variety of local robotic avatars and controls."
How social robots can assist
The researchers claim the pandemic is highlighting a need to assist vulnerable members of the community, especially the elderly.
This is where social robots can help.
Social robots are able to monitor patients and make sure they receive necessary treatment. They also provide much-needed social interaction.
This could be a comfort to those who live alone or without any family members.
Social robots can also assist with simple tasks and perform simple health checks to determine if a person is becoming ill.
Challenging area of development
"However, 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," say the researchers.
And roboticists are realising that some of the simplest tasks, which carry risk during pandemics, could be assumed by robots.
"One of them is as simple as delivering needles," said Howie Choset, an editor of Science Robotics, author on the editorial and professor in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Right now, there are people who are sick, who also need healthy food, and yet we don't want to inadvertently expose somebody to getting sick by delivering foods.
"So, another robot application we should be thinking about is a mobile robot that just leaves the car, goes to the person's front door, delivers the food and goes away if you really want to be extra, extra safe. I get it – you can leave stuff on doorsteps – just ring the bell and go, but this adds another level of safety."
Choset says robots, drones and artificial intelligence can also be used in other areas, like disaster response and humanitarian aid.
Preparing for worst-case scenarios
Roboticists believe there is much to learn from the COVID-19 crisis so that history doesn’t repeat.
Three key ingredients are needed – government action, technology and greater collaboration with the research community.
The authors suggest a regular bi-annual global challenge be conducted focussing on the development of robots for infectious diseases. It would allow testing of the effectiveness of the robots to determine if they can be developed, make them cost-effective and ensure that rapid deployment is possible.
"I think at this time we really need to ensure that we have a global orchestrated sustainable approach to research with the use of robots," Yang said.
People need time to get used to robots, he says. To feel safe, people need a comfort level with them – especially if a robot is taking their temperature or swabbing inside their nostrils.
Many of the robotics needed now require capabilities that aren't being developed or funded at the moment, the researchers say.
"Without a sustainable approach to research, history will repeat itself, and robots will not be ready for the next incident."