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The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has dominated 2020, affecting daily lives and every industry around the world. Early in the year, it aggravated a manufacturing slowdown that was the result of both expected economic cycles and trade tensions between China and the U.S.
At the same time, COVID-19 has accelerated demand for robotics in supply chain and healthcare applications. Robotics suppliers switched from citing labor shortages to the need for social distancing as a rationale for adopting automation.
Even as governments grapple with subsequent waves of infection, there are early signs of recovery in some regions and in the automotive sector. While nearly 5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered around the world at the time of writing this article, it’s too soon to say when most businesses, schools, and travel venues will reopen.
In the meantime, here are four ways in which the robotic industry has responded to COVID-19.
COVID-19 Disinfection and cleaning
One of the most obvious applications for robotics in response to the pandemic is to disinfect hospital rooms and other spaces with ultraviolet radiation or chemical sprays. However, both developers and users should be aware of limitations. UV-C light is effective at killing pathogens in the air or on surfaces, but it can be hazardous to humans and degrade certain plastics. Radiation exposure is one reason why it is better to send in an autonomous or semi-autonomous mobile robot into an area to work.
In the Philippines, Robotic Activations apologized after a demonstration of its Keno robot caused eye irritation among as many as 10 observers. Disinfection robots need to detect when humans are nearby and shut down for safety.
Simply putting UV lights on a mobile robot base is not enough to guarantee effective or safe disinfection of COVID-19, noted Claus Risager, co-founder and CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics, which spun out of UVD Robots. UVD recently won a contract to deploy 200 disinfection robots in European hospitals.
“So many people are trying to copy the UVD robots,” he told The Robot Report. “It’s unbelievable how fast that came. There’s more to our product than putting light bulbs on a robot. We’ve done clinical design and long-term testing for all kinds of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, as well as time of exposure, angles, shadowing effects, and reflections.”
It’s also worth noting the companies that were developing UV-C robots before the COVID-19 crisis — UVD Robots and Xenex Disinfection Services — are among the market leaders, despite a host of imitators and research projects. UVD Robots’ system is on its third generation and is available through partners worldwide.
At midyear, new disinfection robots were announced every week. Some came from established mobile robot providers, such as Lavender from Geekplus, the SmartGuardUV from Fetch Robotics, or the LD UVC from Omron and Techmetics Robotics.
Other systems from cleaning robot providers rely on sprays, mists, or a combination of chemicals and UV-C. These include the CIRQ+CLEAN from CIRQ+, Nimbus from Life Sciences Holdings Inc., and the Large Area Autonomous Disinfecting vehicle from Pratt Miller Mobility.
Both types must address the time needed to properly disinfect a certain space, the “shadowing” effect depending on angles and occlusions, and the endurance needed to treat multiple rooms or large areas like an airport lounge. Like UV, some chemical disinfectants pose a risk to people.
“UV robots are scary,” said Faizan Sheikh, co-founder and CEO of Avidbots. “We are paying close attention to safety, and we’re active in the IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] for safety. Some sprays are safer for humans — sodium- or solvent-based, [and] we need to do analysis of this.”
In addition, some companies, such as Perpetual Motion, are developing drones to disinfect large areas, and Clearpath Robotics is among those working to treat outdoor spaces. Exyn Technologies conducted a study that found aerial drones might not yet be a practical method of disinfection.
“The time and power required to ensure mission completion would not be an efficient solution to sanitize large areas at this time,” said Exyn. “To be an effective solution for large areas, further advancement is needed in the underlying UV-C LED technology so that effective sanitization could be achieved on the order of seconds rather than minutes.”
Stationary systems inside heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) infrastructure are another possible alternative for airborne viruses.
Supply chain automation
Several executives told The Robot Report the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an existing shift from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce, particularly for consumer packaged goods and groceries. Growth expected over the next three to ﬁve years occurred over the past six months, they said.
In the ﬁrst few months of the year, supply chains were strained by the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, and they are now gearing up for the distribution of potential vaccines. Hospital supply chains are subject to shifting demands like those in retail.
The need to respond to such demands has led to expectations of growth in robotics for pick-and-place, materials handling, and delivery applications. Vendors of mobile robots, automated storage and retrieval systems, and last-mile delivery vehicles in the air and on the ground have been bullish.
For instance, insightSlice predicts that the global market for delivery drones and robots will grow from $10 billion in 2019 to $38 billion by 2030. In an April survey, Interactions LLC found increasing consumer comfort with robots for healthcare, retail, and delivery.
“Online grocery and general merchandise orders need robotics to keep up with demand, velocity, and quality,” said Steve Hornyak, chief commercial officer at Fabric. “Then, to get products closer to customers and get to the one-day norm that Amazon has driven, you need micro-fulﬁllment centers rather than big warehouses at the edge of cities.”