Many healthcare and infectious disease experts believe mass testing is the key to re-opening the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A new Danish robotics startup, co-founded by a familiar face, is looking to automate, scale, and improve COVID-19 testing, while also keeping healthcare workers out of harm’s way.
Lifeline Robotics, a spin-out of the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) in Odense, has created an autonomous throat swabbing robot to test for the novel coronavirus. Esben Østergaard, co-founder of Universal Robots and REInvest Robotics, is one of the company’s co-founders. The company is owned jointly between the university, Norrsken Foundation, and REInvest Robotics.
Here’s how the robot prototype works. Using two Universal Robots UR3 cobot arms and a custom 3D-printed end effector, it picks up the swab after the patient has scanned an ID card. The robot then uses its vision system to identify the right points to swab in the patient’s throat. Once the swab is complete, the robot places the sample in a jar and screws on the lid. The jar is then sent to a lab for analysis.
We asked Østergaard to further explain some of the technical aspects of the system. Understandably, he told The Robot Report via email, “We can say what the robot is doing, but we can, unfortunately, not say much about how the robot is doing what it is doing.”
After this article was posted, we reached back out to Lifeline to ask about potentially developing nose swabbing capabilities for the system. Nose swabbing is, perhaps, the more common approach to collecting samples to test for COVID-19. We have yet to hear back, but will update this article if we learn more.
In the video below, the researchers discuss two of the main challenges of building the system: using computer vision to find the right movement for each throat and controlling the force applied by the robot.
Lifeline Robotics said the entire automated swabbing process takes about seven minutes, and the swab itself 25 seconds.
“Like so many others I was horrified to see the rapid development of the COVID-19 crisis, and I felt I had to do something,” said Østergaard. “With my background, the obvious choice was to automate the testing process. The current manual process is difficult and cumbersome. A machine will reduce the risk of infection among healthcare staff and patients, as well as give higher-quality test results.”
The throat swabbing robot has already received 2 million DKK ($290,000 U.S.) in funding from Vaekstfonden, which is the Danish state’s investment fund. Its future development is also supported by Odense University Hospital. Kim Brixen, medical director at the hospital, said the robot holds great potential in mass screening for COVID-19 and other virus infections. It could also be used at healthcare facilities, border control offices, or airports.
“Staffs are in great demand in other functions, especially during the current epidemic. The robot can work around the clock, and it provides a safe procedure for every citizen tested,” said Brixen. “The closing of our societies has halted the COVID-19 epidemic in many countries. Large scale testing is part of the strategy during the re-opening of our communities. This invention is a great example of the potential of robotics within the health care sector.”
Tsinghua University is also developing a throat swabbing robot that collects samples to test for COVID-19. But Lifeline Robotics claims its system is the “world’s first fully automatic throat swab robot.” It took the team of 10 researchers just four weeks to develop the Lifeline prototype. The company is developing a commercial version it hopes to release within the next couple of months.
“In Denmark, we are fortunate to have world-class knowledge on robotics, safety, and medical technology,” said Østergaard. “We also have a long-standing design tradition of taking the users seriously in the products we make. Leveraging on my experience from Universal Robots and the network of partners, we will develop and bring this product to market in record time.”
“Medical professionals should not work like robots all day long, their time is better spent on patients with special needs,” he said. “That is why we developed the world’s first automatic swabbing robot, specifically for COVID-19.”