COVID-19: Machine helping Man

COVID-19, being highly infectious, posed a serious threat to frontline health workers. To cope up with the challenge of health workers’ safety without comprising patient care and safety, man sought the help of the machine once again. And machines never disappoint. Machines (Robots) are now helping man (healthcare workers) to handle a pandemic efficiently. Robots are being deployed in health institutions across the United States, China, Italy and now India for cleaning, disinfecting wards and assisting patients. Scientists, doctors, and technocrats are working overtime to scale up machines’ role in combating COVID-19.  



In India, AIIMS, Delhi, Swai Mansingh Singh Hospital, Jaipur, and several other leading private health institutions have been experimenting with machines to control the spread of infection among doctors and minimise frequent contact with COVID-19 patients. And the outcome of deployment of robotics has been very encouraging so far. AIIMS, Delhi decided to test a 92cm tall robot called Humanoid ELF in the COVID-19 wards. The robot can move autonomously and travel at the speed of 2.9kmph. It can record all activities using in-built 3D and HD cameras, enable doctors and nurses to interact with patients remotely and also facilitate communication between patients and their friends and family members via its 10-inch screen.

It is promising to note that this machine has a tag of ‘Made in India.’ The Indian company Milagrow’s humanoid robot uses Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM ) technologies to detect objects in its path so it can avoid collision and move around freely. It has more than 60 sensors and uses open API to allow further customisations if required. The robot runs on battery, last up to 8 hours and has an auto-charge feature.

A Chennai hospital has been experimenting with a robot, named Astra-C. It uses ultraviolet light (UVC)-based disinfection equipment to kill the coronavirus. It communicates directly with the elevator to reach a particular floor and empty isolation wards which need to be disinfected. Astra-C is programmed to carry out the disinfection on its own.

Robotics, deployed by Indian health institutions, can move autonomously and sanitise the floors without human intervention. The robot uses sodium hypochlorite solution, as recommended by ICMR, to kill any COVID-19 spores on floor surfaces. It can detect obstacles and uses real-time terrain recognition technology to scan and map floors in real-time.

SMS Hospital, Jaipur had taken a lead when the doctors had brought in a robot to serve the patients at the isolated wards with COVID-19 patients. Now the Jaipur hospital is in talks with robotics companies to scale up the deployment of robots to deliver medicines and food to patients in isolation wards. Kochi based Asimov Robotics has built an autonomous robot which is ready to be deployed in hospitals to assist COVID-19 patients.

Machine’s enormous contribution to the healthcare sector and especially in complex operations is not new. COVID-19 crisis has only made a strong case for the deployment of robots. For instance, in 2018, doctors at an Ahmedabad-based hospital remotely controlled a robot to perform telerobotic heart surgery on a patient located in Gandhinagar. Similarly, in February 2019, doctors at PGIMER Chandigarh used a robot to perform a precision surgery on a two-year-old baby born without a food pipe. Robotic surgeries have become common in many super-speciality hospitals.

According to experts, once the robot comes in service, it can deliver food and other small things as required by patients, thereby reducing the rounds of medical staff they need to make in isolation wards. Eventually, the number of medical staff deputed in the isolation ward shall be reduced and they can serve other departments as required. If a robot reduces even one round out of 10 being made by medical staff, it shall be of big help, as it shall reduce 10 per cent chance of exposure.

So, going forward, hearing a soft and humming sound in isolation wards, hallways and lobbies of the hospitals would not amaze anybody. Unusual sounds may come from the robots deployed there.