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At the same time, the rapid growth in e-commerce order fulﬁllment should be kept in perspective.
“We’re looking at e-commerce numbers picking up to 20% of retail this year,” said Guy Courtin, head of global alliances at mobile robot provider 6 River Systems Inc. “When we talk to our parent company Shopify, it has seen six to seven years of growth in the past several months.”
“But we should remember that 75% to 80% of retail is still in store, and as restrictions have loosened, we can see some of that returning,” he said.
Remote diagnosis and treatment
Healthcare workers, from nurses and surgeons to therapists, are already on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Robots, drones, and artificial intelligence offer some help to providers who were already shorthanded before the pandemic. They can aid with screening entrants to facilities, contact tracing, and telemedicine.
In March, Draganfly said it was working with Vital Intelligence and the University of South Australia to develop drone-based detection of health metrics including heart and respiratory rates. The company also worked with the police department in Westport, Conn.
In April, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital used a Spot quadruped from Boston Dynamics to remotely obtain patients’ vital signs.
In September, Teledyne DALSA announced the Calibir GX thermal cameras to detect elevated skin temperatures.
Food-service organizations are also turning to robots and sensors. CaliBurger, which has been testing Miso Robotics’ Flippy frying robot, also added facial recognition, thermal sensing, and contactless ordering at a recently renovated restaurant in Florida.
On the treatment side, social robots offer a more constant companion than busy clinical staffers, and telepresence and wearable systems can aid human therapists. For example, Expper Technologies’ Robin robot is designed to work with children being treated for chronic conditions.
Many millennials would accept emerging technologies including telemedicine, robot-assisted surgery, and autonomous vehicles for the health and well-being of their children, found the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in a study released last month.
Another example is Energid Technologies Corp.’s work on remote diagnosis. “Energid Technologies worked with Dr. Jeff Soble and Sarah Doherty, co-founders of startup Telehealth Robotics, to develop a system for medical kiosks, where patients could go to a local kiosk to get a carotid ultrasound performed by a remote technician,” said Neil Tardella, CEO of Energid.
The cutting edge of teleoperation, literally, is remote surgery, which organizations such as Corindus Vascular Robotics have been pioneering. This is aided by increasing levels of autonomy, which frees remote surgeons for higher-level cognitive tasks, as well as 5G bandwidth for fast and accurate imaging and controls.
Social distancing in industry
Social robots have also been pressed into duty during the COVID-19 pandemic, as suppliers of such robots look for more commercial viability. Robovie reminds shoppers to maintain social distancing in Japan, while Agilo Kim talks to restaurant diners in South Korea.
Social distancing is equally important on the factory or warehouse ﬂoor, leading to more interest in telepresence and teleoperation. Vendors of collaborative robot arms such as Universal Robots and autonomous mobile robots like Mobile Industrial Robots have said their ﬂexible automation can help businesses remain productive while spacing out staffers.
“The days where factories are filled with tightly packed workers are likely coming to an end, and industries must determine how to reduce human density without the commensurate reduction in productivity,” Tardella said. “Advanced software that allows robots to work in close proximity to one another can bring productivity levels back up to human level.”
In September, the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing, or ARM Institute, announced nine projects that will receive a total of about $8 million to help U.S. industry respond to the pandemic. They include an autonomous disinfection robot for warehouses, the use of 3D printing and robotics to make PPE, and swarm robotics for building large structures.
Whenever COVID-19 is finally defeated, people will return to factories, restaurants, hospitals, and schools. However, increasing autonomy and awareness of the potential of robotics will likely mean a continued expansion of adoption for applications involving collaboration, remote monitoring, and rapid response to healthcare or market conditions.