Engineers in China have developed a robot to treat and test Covid-19 patients while allowing healthcare workers to remain at a safe distance from the highly infectious virus.
The remote-controlled, wheeled machine can take mouth swabs, perform ultrasound scans and listen to organs with a robot stethoscope.
Medical staff can operate the robots from a safe distance using onboard cameras to monitor the patient.
High infection rates among health care workers have hampered efforts to tackle the outbreak, prompting the designers to see if a robot could provide protection.
Robot engineers have long promised their machines will eventually save human workers from dull, dangerous or dirty work. The coronavirus epidemic presents and opportunity to tests what robots may be able to do, some scientists believe.
“Doctors are all very brave,” the robot’s chief designer, Tsinghua University Professor Zheng Gangtie told Reuters. “But this virus is just too contagious … We can use robots to perform the most dangerous tasks.”
Prof Zheng said the idea came as he watched the Chinese city of Wuhan go on lockdown earlier in the year as the number of cases in China rose rapidly. He said a friend, Dong Jiahong, executive president at Beijing’s Tsinghua Changgung Hospital, had told him one of the biggest challenges was frontline workers getting infected.
Gathering a team, he converted two robotic arms such as those used on space stations or lunar explorers.
The robots were almost entirely automated, and could even disinfect themselves after performing actions involving contact, he said.
Yet the robots may have disconcerted patients, according to the first medical reports.
“The feedback from doctors was that it would be better for there to be less automation, as a personal presence would comfort and calm the patient,” he said.
Prof Zheng said he would like to build more such robots but funding from the university has run out. The robots cost around £62,000 each to build. He said he did not plan on commercialising his robot design but hopes a company comes along to take that on.
Meanwhile Spain, which has one of the world’s worst outbreaks, said at the weekend that it would use robots to increase testing. The country has been testing between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day and will use automation to increase that fourfold.
“A plan to automate tests through robots has been already designed, and Spain has committed to buying four robots that will allow us to execute 80,000 tests per day,” Raquel Yotti, head of Madrid-based Health Institute Carlos III, said at a health ministry press conference on Saturday.
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