The development and use of robotics are not only relevant to U.S. economic competitiveness, but they are also important to national security and public health. This week, the ARM Institute announced that it and three other Manufacturing USA Institutes have received $3.4 million from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST. The grants were authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.
The ARM (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) Institute is a public-private consortium devoted to enhancing U.S. manufacturing with collaborative robotics and workforce development programs. NIST is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and awarded the CARES Act grants for “high-impact” projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NIST picks Wilder Systems to automate virus testing
The Pittsburgh-based ARM Institute with its members this past spring to collect manufacturing-focused robotics proposals to respond to this NIST project call. NIST picked a technology project submitted by ARM member Wilder Systems for funding.
ARM will receive more than $600,000 to develop a safe method to use collaborative robots to automate part of the COVID-19 testing process. Current testing capacity is limited by the number of technicians in the U.S. By augmenting the limited labor force with cobots, the project seeks to increase the number of tests conducted at hospital and university labs and minimize exposure to medical personnel.
The finished system is expected to be available within four months after the project begins. Once samples are collected and delivered to the lab, cobots will manage RNA isolation and run multiple polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analyzers.
There are an estimated 100,000 PCR analyzers in every U.S. hospital and university, but insufficient technicians to test at full equipment capacity. If all university PCR in the U.S. ran at full capacity, 24 million additional tests per day could be conducted.
Automating existing on-premises PCR equipment using FDA-approved test protocols will increase national testing capabilities, shorten result turnaround by days, optimize human capital, reduce virus exposure risks, and save American lives, said ARM.
ARM project calls require quick responses
In addition, ARM released an accelerated Technology Project Call on June 29, seeking additional proposals from its members to develop robots to respond to the novel coronavirus. As the pandemic has evolved, so have the areas of need; this project call seeks to quickly address focus areas identified by the U.S. Department of Defense. ARM plans to award a total of $5 million, with proposals due on July 13, 2020.
The overall NIST CARES Act funding goes to four Manufacturing USA Institutes, which are public-private partnerships working with academic and private sector manufacturing organizations on advanced research and development and advanced manufacturing skills training. Each institute focuses on a specialty such as biopharmaceuticals, 3D printing, robotics, or wearable sensors.
“I am pleased we have quickly provided these CARES Act funds to support the innovative projects contributing to our COVID-19 response efforts at the public-private Manufacturing USA institutes,” stated Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “When we operate at the ‘speed of business’ and work collaboratively across the government in partnership with the private sector, we achieve great things for our nation.”
“The collaborative programs these institutes have built since the launch of Manufacturing USA have resulted in powerful networks including universities, inventors and manufacturers,” said Walter G. Copan, undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and NIST director. “These partnerships have allowed them to rapidly respond to the current pandemic with projects to expand production of needed medical countermeasures, provide workforce training, increase testing capacity and help manufacturers prepare for the future.”