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Flexible approaches to robotics in the context of the pandemic in Switzerland

Flexible approaches to robotics in the context of the pandemic in Switzerland

Brad Nelson, a robotics professor in Switzerland, had been planning to install a robotic catheter system in China at one of the world’s largest hospitals when the Covid-19 crisis hit.

Soon after, Nelson and his team at the federal technology institute ETH realised that the robotic catheters designed to protect surgeons from harmful x-rays during brain operations could also prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Surgical robots have been around for decades to perform minimally invasive surgeries. Similarly, industrial robots have been assembling cars in factories for years. But amid the pandemic, robots could bring back some sense of normalcy by doing essential tasks that have become too risky for humans.

The Swiss start-up ANYbotics is one of many companies catering to humanity’s new need for robotic help. The Robotics for Infectious Diseases, a new consortium of roboticists addressing Covid-19, found reports of more than 150 ways robots are being used in Covid-19.

In different countries, disinfecting robots with UV lights have been sweeping through hallways in hospitals and schools, four-legged robots have been delivering packages to doorsteps, and robotic dogs have been spotted monitoring social distancing in parks.

In Switzerland, the robotics field has been booming. Researchers and start-ups like Sensars and MyoSwiss are developing wearable or prosthetic robots. Flying robots like Dronistics can undertake rescue missions. Educational robots are teaching computational thinking and engineering.

When the pandemic spread, Dario Floreano, who heads the National Centre of Competence in Research Robotics, and colleagues gathered to think about ways Swiss researchers could contribute to tackling the global scourge. “We could develop a lot of technology solutions, but the last thing people need is to figure out a new technology,” he said. “What we need is to figure out how to apply the ones we have. It wasn’t the time to send experimental prototypes into the field.”

The Idiap Research Institute in Martigny in Canton Valais showed off a robot that makes raclette cheese at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And now the Idiap team with its leader Sylvain Calinon has been working on a use of that technology as part of I-Dress, a project that uses robot assistants to help someone dress, including health care workers, who have to limit physical contact with garments to avoid contamination.

ANYbotics' four-legged walking robots have been used for routine inspections and to solve maintenance problems in industries such as offshore and onshore energy, chemical production and construction sites. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, it has been receiving requests for their four-legged robots to disinfect spaces in public buildings such as schools and hospitals that have stairwells. There, previously harmless tasks carry serious health risks. This makes autonomous robots designed for places too dangerous for humans more reliable, and cost-effective.

Demand for such services has been given a boost by the rise in use of teleconference and telepresence during the pandemic. The initial impetus for building teleoperating functionality was to keep surgeons safe and out of warzones. This eventually led to the creation of the Da Vinci surgical system that is used in more than 60 countries.

About a decade ago, there was some effort to make telepresence robots that essentially move around, monitoring patients and allowing them to talk to their family. However, the idea hadn’t really taken off until Covid-19 said Nelson.

With the pandemic, this changed. In Italy, robots named Tommy have been doing the rounds with nurses to help take patients’ blood pressure and check oxygen levels.

Despite the potential, experts warn that developing robots exclusively for the purpose of tackling the pandemic is the wrong approach. For example during the Ebola, “as the pandemic waned, the ideas became less interesting and didn’t get any traction,” Nelson said. But Covid-19 is different as it has restricted daily activities much more, opening the door for robots.

Another challenge is finding investors other than governments. The economic downturn has already complicated financing for robotics start-ups as investors focus on keeping existing companies afloat.

This is one of the reasons Calinon’s team is prioritising flexibility both in the back-end programming and its robots’ range of use. What is challenging, Calinon said, is that there is an immediate widespread need. “When something is at the stage of a research project, usually it's quite complicated to move it to the terrain in the same week or the same month.”

It took 15 or so years for the Roomba vacuum cleaning robots to come on the market. The development timeframes has shortened to five to seven years in many cases, but robots still require lengthy testing and safety inspections before they are ready for use, especially when they have to interact with humans.

Robotics perhaps more than many other fields has had to fight back images of robots that are out of control. One malfunction in a hospital or a school could have lasting consequences for people’s acceptance of robots.

The robotics industry also has to contend with concerns about making some jobs obsolete at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing in many countries, including Switzerland.

In a recent op-ed, J. Jesse Ramírez at the University of St Gallen argued that robots have not actually saved us in this pandemic because they can't truly replace essential human labor. The pandemic has underscored how important essential workers are, many of whom have been underpaid and undervalued for a long time, he said.

Robot experts dismiss fears of mass unemployment from robots. Fankhauser admits that there is more apprehension about robots everyday life in Switzerland than in countries like Japan. He tries to describe robots more like smart tools and to be transparent about what they can and can’t do.

Some experiences and interactions in life are irreplaceably human. Using robots might have benefits from an infectious disease standpoint but humans need physical contact.
“We need touch. We have that sensitivity to touch and feeling, that tells us how we can expect someone to behave,” Nelson said. “To encode that in a machine is challenging for engineers.”