In just a few months Covid-19 has changed our lives – ‘Social distancing’ is the new normal and work, study and even socializing have gone virtual.
Authorities too are pushed to innovate and use technology to fight the spread of the pandemic along with delivering quick and safe healthcare.
China, for instance, has used drones to monitor people during lockdowns, while South Korea has used the technology to disinfect areas in Daegu.
In France, UK and Spain, police have been deploying surveillance drones to identify those who have broken the country’s confinement laws.
Japanese industrial drone maker, Terra Drone, flew medical samples and quarantine materials in China’s Xinchang in February, when the epidemic was at its peak in China.
Meanwhile, 100 robots have been flown from Denmark to Wuhan in China and Rome in Italy for the purpose of disinfection.
Robots and Drones: Corona warriors
Due to the contagiousness of COVID-19, it’s safer if human-to-human contact is minimized. Since robots are immune to infection, they are being used at the frontline, in preparing meals at hospitals, doubling up as waiters in restaurants, spraying disinfectants and dispensing hand sanitizers.
In many hospitals, robots are also performing diagnosis and conducting thermal imaging. Shenzhen based company Multicopter is using robots to transport medical samples.
Drones are being deployed to spray disinfectants, enforce lockdowns and in medicine & food delivery.
Transport of samples
Testing drone delivery for medical samples began in early February, at a time when the virus had already killed 600 people in the country and infected 28,000 (CNN). A drone loaded with medical testing supplies took off from the People’s Hospital of Xinchang County, Zhejiang Province and flew to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention located 3 km away. As a result, a journey that would have taken 20 minutes by ground transport took only 6, cutting delivery time by more than half.
This effort required close coordination with a variety of groups and agencies to approve routes and ensure proper safety measures were taken. At the peak of the operation, it ran 20 more flights every day.
Aerial spray, disinfection and patient care
Depending on the application, drone spray can be fifty times more efficient than people spraying. Originally designed to spray pesticides for agricultural applications, drones were adapted in China to spray disinfecting chemicals in some public spaces and on epidemic prevention vehicles traveling between impacted areas. (Coronavirus is mainly transmitted via respiratory droplets and can also spread by touching contaminated surfaces. Disinfectant spray helps reduce these transmission mechanisms.)
In early March , a field hospital opened up in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. Called the Smart Hospital, it is staffed with robots for disinfection and to provide food, drinks and medicine to patients. Humanoid robots are being used to provide some entertainment to patients, by singing and dancing.
The already-existing police patrol robots have been upgraded with new capabilities to assist in conducting disease prevention inspections and exercises.
According to the China News Service website, these features include high-resolution cameras and infrared thermometers that are capable of scanning the temperatures of up to 10 people at once who are in a radius of 5 meters. If one of these robots discovers somebody who is not wearing a mask or who has a high temperature, an alert is sent to the authorities.
UVD Robots, a Denmark company has sent over 100 robots to Wuhan and Rome in Italy for the purpose of disinfection. The machines emit powerful UV rays that can help with decontamination by tearing apart strands of virus DNA. The UV units can operate for as long as 2.5 hours on a charge, and can disinfect 9 to 10 rooms during that duration.
Meanwhile, Shenzhen-based Pudu Technology, maker of robots for the catering industry, has also deployed robots in more than 40 hospitals in China to assist medical staff.
Drone delivery of consumer items can ensure that people have access to food and other goods – and make it easier for them to limit human contact.
When counter-virus measures suspended the ferry service to semi-isolated islands.of China, drone delivery quickly became a feasible alternative. With the support from the local government, e-commerce company JD deployed its drone team. In just a few days, several drone delivery routes were put in place replacing hours-long drives with a 2 km flight that could be completed in just 10 minutes.
As per a Reuters report, a small robot called Little Peanut delivered food to passengers who were on a flight from Singapore to Hangzhou, China.
Food delivery service Ele.me too used robots to deliver meals to quarantined individuals held in a hotel who were suspected of having the virus.
India and its Covid-19 warriors
Though India lagged behind in robot and drone technology development, learning from the world, it is experimenting with their use – though still sporadic – to control the spread of coronavirus.
Drones are being used to warn people against violation of rules during the 21-day nationwide lockdown. In Srinagar, police are using drones to announce the restrictions on the movement of people.
A Bangalore-based startup, General Aeronautics, has deployed drones across the city to spray disinfectants. The disinfectant is a mixture of sanitiser and bleaching powder, and is also being sprayed in areas where garbage has piled up.
In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Garuda Aerospace has got an order from the Tamil Nadu state government to spray disinfectants in all public places in Chennai.It has an overall fleet of 300 drones and 500 pilots, who will operate these drones across 26 Indian cities.The drones are designed to fly till at a height of 150 metres, and can also disinfect high rise buildings.
Asimov Robotics, a startup, has been using robots to dispense sanitisers and distribute masks to the employees of various startups in Kochi in Kerala. Now it is looking to deploy robots called Karmi-bots to assist Covid-19 patients in isolation wards by carrying food to them.
Sawai Mansingh Hospital in Jaipur, where one of the first few patients of Covid-19 was admitted, has a robot under trial, to check if it can deliver food and medicine to patients admitted in the hospital. If the trial works out, the humanoid robot can perform this task.
Manufactured under the ‘Make in India’ initiative this robot uses AI and Internet of Things (IoT) to do its job. It doesn’t need to follow lines on the floor and can navigate its own way.
Chennai’s Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH) is also planning to deploy robots in its coronavirus ward to serve food and medicines to the patients who have been isolated in the ward. The aim is to minimise exposure of doctors and nurses to the virus.
Lessons to be learnt
The coronavirus outbreak has led to significant experimentation with many emerging technologies. These technologies have helped in arresting or containing the spread of the deadly virus.
Indian authorities should draw lessons from these experiments and integrate these technologies into far reaching, enduring and planned health responses.