Could Robots Help In The Fight Against Pandemics? A Group of Researchers Say It's Possible

Apr 6, 2020

Robots have long been used to tackle dangerous and dirty jobs. But during a pandemic, even everyday tasks outside the home carry a risk, especially for the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions.

A group of roboticists co-wrote an editorial detailing some of the ways that robots could be useful in combating COVID-19. Robots could be used to transport medicine and food to patients in hospitals, or deliver groceries to those unable to leave their homes. 

“They can help separate the patient from the caregiver, because right now the patient is really contagious,” said Howie Choset, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-author of the editorial.

He said he’s received numerous calls from physicians asking if he has a robot that could help them. Choset said that while he’d love to help build robots for doctors, he doesn’t have a fleet of robots ready to roll.

That’s in part because one of the biggest issues facing robotics is a lack of sustainable research funding. Without sustained interest and investment in robotics research, he says the roles that robots play in disasters are quickly forgotten once the worst is over.

However, Choset says that there is some “low-hanging fruit,” like robots making deliveries in hospitals. He says that even a robot carrying a tray of medical devices from a doorway to a patient’s bedside could reduce the exposure between health care workers and those infected with COVID-19.

Choset and his colleagues are not seeking to replace health care workers with robots, but to keep them safe by reducing their risk of infection. He says one day robots could have a hand in more complicated procedures, like inserting IV lines, but he admits that technology is “still two or three years away.”

He’s hopeful that through this pandemic, people will find creative new tasks for robots, and that there will be a multidisciplinary approach to thinking about they could be used.

“My hope is that, because this instance is so severe, that it’ll…elucidate this clear need that’s been overlooked.”

By thinking about it now, Choset and his co-authors hope we’ll be more prepared for the future.

WESA receives funding from Carnegie Mellon University.