With industries and whole economies grappling with how to reopen safely, automation offers valuable assistance to human workers.
Investments in robotics and automation have been increasing exponentially over the past decades, reaching an estimated $16.5 billion in 2019—well before the coronavirus shut down major industries. While in the past, the rise of automation has been blamed as the end of employment for many, new robots are being strategically used to make our lives safer, allowing humans to be redeployed to services that require a (socially distant) human touch.
Robo-workers are being used around the world to help healthcare and other staff do their jobs in more sanitary environments. In the UK, robots from the Self Repairing Cities project are now being trialled as street cleaners helping to disinfect the Leeds city center by spraying disinfectant liquid on high-touch areas like benches. By using robots to disinfect these areas first, human sanitation workers are less likely to be exposed to the virus. Heathrow Airport is taking a similar approach, employing robots to kill viruses on surfaces in bathrooms and elevators with ultraviolet light.
To help protect hospital staff from potentially infected patients during check in, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) donated five epidemic-fighting Zora robots to the Kanyinya treatment center in Kenya’s capital city, Kigali in May. The robots can mass screen coronavirus patients by taking their temperature or monitoring coughs for up to 150 people a minute while also keeping patient records, freeing up nursing staff for more involved work.
However, as COVID-19 is an airborne virus, social distancing is also crucial to prevent spread; which is why, in May, Singapore tested the use of Spot, Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, to keep residents a safe distance apart in the city’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Spot was able to play a pre-recorded message reminding people to maintain their distance while also keeping count of park visitors, reporting crowd numbers to authorities. The idea is to expand use in other parks around the city.
As people remain sheltered in their homes, delivery has become even more important as a way to get essential and nonessential items. Although contactless delivery is offered by companies from Dominos to Parcel2Go, human drivers still bring the packages (or pizza!) to the door. Now new mechanical helpers can remove this last bit of contact.
Geely Automobile Holdings in China is now delivering new car keys via drone (although the car is still driven to the location by a person). In Tokyo later this month, DeliRo robots from Japanese robot firm ZMP Inc. will be testing out delivery of soba noodle dishes to customers in and around the Shinagawa train station. While in Ann Arbor Michigan, the already active REV-1, from Refraction AI, has seen requests for delivery jump up four-fold since lockdown began in March.
The hospitality sector is among one of the industries most affected by the pandemic, but innovative companies are looking to mitigate negative economic effects by deploying robot helpers alongside human staff. In September, Flippy ROAR (Robot-on-a-Rail), the hamburger flipping, French fry-making robot, will be installed in a White Castle fast-food restaurant in Chicago. By using AI, Flippy will be able to reduce waste, prevent human injuries, reduce repetitive tasks and—most importantly going forward—enable lower-contact cooking. In an interview with QSRWeb, White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson said, “We want to feature this as a tool for empowerment, not replacement.” Flippy will be used to allow staff time to work on more logistical problems in the kitchen, like getting orders out to the drive-thru faster.
KFC is also looking to automated assistance, opening their almost contact-free Moscow location in June. After placing an order on a self-service kiosk, food is put onto a conveyer belt by a human kitchen employee. The belt delivers the food to a mechanical arm that places the meal into a cubby, which the customer has a unique code to unlock—thus eliminating all face-to-face contact between employees and restaurant goers. In January, a hotel in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province China employed robots to deliver food to quarantining guests, minimizing human contact.
Automation was already on the rise before the outbreak of COVID-19, but with companies looking to pandemic-proof their operations and prioritizing human health, it’s primed to accelerate, making vital jobs safer for employees and customers.
Main image courtesy of Zora