Opinion: from hospitals to shops and policing, the use of drones and robots to carry out critical services can save lives during an epidemic

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By Boris Galkin, TCD

As the world is rocked by the coronavirus crisis, governments everywhere have come together with the same safety instructions: stay home and avoid close contact with other people. For many, this lifestyle change simply entails taking their workload home and balancing it with their domestic chores: bookkeeping while babysitting, coding while cooking.

But leaving the house is still a necessity for purchasing food and essentials, which carries a risk of infection. Even worse off are those people whose jobs cannot be taken home and who must be in contact with potentially sick individuals.

The good news is that possible solutions for many of these issues are just around the corner, as the crisis has given a boost to a number of emerging technologies. The last 10 years have seen a technological revolution occur in the robotics and autonomous vehicle sectors. Largely invisible to the layperson, this crisis has pushed the technology out of its niche into the public sphere like never before. 

From CGTN, a Chinese hospital is using robots to deliver medicine

So how are robots and drones playing a key role in containing the spread of the Covid-19 virus - and what changes we can expect to see in Ireland in the near future? Among those most at risk of contracting the virus are healthcare personnel such as doctors and nurses, who spend prolonged periods of time in areas with potentially infectious patients. Recognising this, several hospitals in China have begun adopting autonomous robots for many of their day-to-day tasks, such as delivering food and medicine to patients, as well as disinfecting the hospital environment.

In Singapore, doctors are using telemedicine robots to remotely interact with patients from a safe distance whenever possible. These robots take the form of electric carts carrying cameras, video monitors and health measurement equipment. The medical personnel using these devices have the opportunity to increase the frequency of their patient interactions without having to resort to wearing PPE such as gloves and masks, which are in short supply.

Another key service which is seeing a robotic transformation is the delivery sector. With individuals staying home, the demand for online shopping and home delivery has skyrocketed. This puts delivery staff in a difficult situation, as any contact with the end-client puts both parties at risk.

From New China TV, autonomous delivery robots delivering goods in Wuhan

While leaving packages on doorsteps is an option, Chinese company JD.com has a better idea. Already a big player in autonomous delivery systems, this company has used the quarantine conditions to push their autonomous ground vehicles from the lab to the street. Taking the form of miniature electric vans, JD.com's delivery robots are safely driving along Wuhan’s roads and carrying out the last-mile stage of package delivery (that is, the stage where a package is sent from the local storage hub to the client’s address). Capable of piloting themselves around complicated road conditions day or night, these robots are reported to be making the majority of the company’s medical deliveries at the time of writing.

Law enforcement has not been left behind by this technological trend. With the lockdown come new laws which need to be enforced, and police organisations around the world are turning to remotely-piloted tools. These devices most often take the form of commercially available drones carrying loudspeakers or other communication equipment. Using them, police officers are able to remotely patrol city streets and public areas, identify the locations of non-compliant individuals and directly engage them. Not only do these devices allow the police to maintain their physical distance when carrying out their patrols, but their speed allows the police to oversee much larger areas than what they could achieve from the ground.

From ABC News, Madrid police are using drones to broadcast messages during the coronavirus outbreak

While China has emerged as the leader in adopting these robotic tools, other countries are following closely. Ireland is currently lagging behind with this technology, due to a combination of economic and legislative issues. Current legislation prevents many of the applications of autonomous vehicles described above, particularly those used outdoors in public areas.

By law, autonomous or remotely piloted delivery vans are not permitted on Irish roads, and drones are heavily restricted in how they can use Irish airspace, even in the hands of the emergency services. Fortunately, the legislation on autonomous vehicles and drones is gradually changing to allow for more expanded use cases, such as food delivery in selected parts of the country.

The automation revolution was visible on the horizon for a while, but this crisis has suddenly brought it into full view

It is unlikely that we will see the technologies described above become adopted in Ireland during this current crisis, but the existing global trends unanimously point towards a near future where this technology is a daily part of our lives. Economists, scientists and tech experts worldwide are predicting that the virus will create an even greater demand for automating parts of the economy from the factory to the office.

When the virus outbreak comes to an end, the world will return to a new normal, with robots and autonomous devices appearing in various workplaces in increasing numbers. Working from home will become available to more people, while others will find aspects of their jobs taken over by machines, whether remotely piloted by the workers themselves or controlled by artificial intelligence. New business opportunities will emerge to cater to these automation demands, with new jobs created in the process. The automation revolution was visible on the horizon for a while, but this crisis has suddenly brought it into full view, and showed just how important the technology is for saving lives.

Boris Galkin is a PhD researcher at CONNECT in Trinity College Dublin

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ