ROBOTS ARE OFTEN CAST in popular science fiction as the villains – soulless automatons that take over the world and enslave mankind. But with the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic, robots are increasingly being employed as helpers, taking on often dull, difficult and dangerous tasks and thus reducing humans' exposure to COVID-19.
Across the world, robotics companies are teaming with health care providers and government officials to develop technological solutions for dealing with the global health crisis. In China, robots with tank-like tread have rolled down streets spraying disinfectant. In at least one hospital in South Korea, robots are being used to check patients' temperatures and dispense hand sanitizer. In Tunisia, authorities have deployed robots to ensure people are obeying the lockdown.
In the United States, two of the principal ways in which robotic technology is being used to fight the pandemic are to disinfect hospital rooms and to act as a telemedicine portal, allowing doctors and health care workers to communicate via video conference directly with patients without unnecessarily exposing themselves to the highly contagious virus.
In Boston, doctors, researchers and robotics engineers have teamed up to bring a friendly, dog-like robot named Spot into Brigham and Women's Hospital, allowing doctors to interact with COVID-19 patients via telemedicine.
While other technology companies have built robots with built-in screens that serve as the doctor's stand-in in health care settings, what sets Spot apart is its four-legged design, which allows the robot to move about easily in different settings, such as the triage tent set up outside the hospital.
In March, at the onset of the pandemic, a coalition from the hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Spot's manufacturer, robotics firm Boston Dynamics, began developing and testing the robot's design to enable Spot to interact with patients, thus reducing the exposure of frontline health care workers to the virus. In the place of a head, Spot has an iPad affixed to a stand, allowing doctors to conduct telemedicine sessions with their patients.
"Most people actually really like it," says Dr. Peter Chai, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist who serves as the hospital's chief investigator on the robot project.
Researchers are working to increase the robot's diagnostic abilities, enabling it to gauge the patient's temperature and measure his or her respiratory rate.
Chai predicts that hospitals will continue to find ways to use robots even after the coronavirus pandemic subsides, whether it be through delivering supplies to rooms or seeing patients with other contagious diseases.