A previously-niche segment of robotics has become an overnight medical sensation due to the pandemic. Can they deliver us from harm?

Despite being a niche product that accounted for just 3% of global robot spending in 2018, collaborative robots (cobots) are a fast-growing segment of the industrial robot sector.

According to a 2018 report by research-driven venture capital firm Loup Ventures, global robotics spending was expected to reach US$13bn by 2025, and cobots were expected to jump from the niche status to thoroughly mainstream, accounting for 34% of global robot spend.

Unlike traditional industrial robot applications in which robots are isolated from human contact, Cobot applications are suited to the need for social distancing in this year’s pandemic. This factor has probably multiplied the interest in deploying cobot applications in the global healthcare battle in critical frontline industries such as healthcare, medical testing, sanitization, disinfection, medical equipment, as well as tools to re-shore production and enable operations to be more flexible.

Helping frontline medical heroes stay safe

Recently, Universal Robots’ co-founder Esben Østergaard developed one of the world’s first autonomous throat-swabbing robots in collaboration with University of Southern Denmark (SDU). The robot uses UR3 cobot arms fitted with a custom 3D-printed end-effector. This enables a cobot to complete the throat swabbing within seven minutes, with the swabbing itself taking just 25 seconds.

Such throat- and nasal- swab robots protect healthcare workers by reducing staff-patient contact with highly-infectious diseases at the point of testing. Closer to home, Taiwan-based Brain Navi Biotechnology claims to have developed the world’s first autonomous nasal swab test robot using a cobot that can automatically recognize the patient’s facial structure for more accurate specimen-taking. Sensors can identify the position of the nostrils to position a gripper to hold a nasopharyngeal swab (like a long cotton swab), and then automatically extend it into the patient’s nasopharynx for about 10 to 25 seconds to collect the test sample.

The inspection time only takes two to five minutes, and nearly 100 people can be inspected in eight hours. Except for the initial facial positioning scan settings performed by medical staff behind a transparent protective panel, the entire process does not require human intervention.

No longer a niche technology

There has also been a strong demand for effective deep-cleaning and disinfection technologies without involving direct human contact on potentially infected areas. In April 2020, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore unveiled eXtremeDisinfection roBOT (XDBOT), which comprises a cobot fitted with an electrostatic spray-nozzle mounted on a mobile platform. The cobot is programmed to mimic human hand movements to get into hard-to-reach areas such as under the beds and tables. 

With the global realization that we need to be prepared for future pandemic-level incidents, machines that help to minimize human contact and protecting humans from hazardous missions in fueling the development of cobot.

Said Darrell Adams, Head of Southeast Asia & Oceania, Universal Robots: “Collaborative robots have been used in a number of ways to help companies respond to the global pandemic. Because of their key features such as safety, speed, flexibility and ease-of-use, strong demand for cobots is seen across various sectors looking to resume businesses and function at maximum productivity levels.”