Healthcare workers are among the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus owing to their proximity to infected patients. Moreover, physical examination remains a challenge for them despite being in cumbersome PPE kits. Coming to their rescue to some extent now are humanoid robots who are helping them in examining patients and other procedures, thereby reducing their exposure to the virus and paving the way for the use of machine in the Covid-19 fight.
Right from disinfecting floors, carrying out temperature checks to arranging a video call with doctors in case of an emergency, the robots in Indian hospitals are doing all this and much more.
First adopted by AIIMS Delhi, which began testing 92cm-tall robots in Covid wards this April, and slowly by various private multi-specialty hospitals, these robots can travel at a speed of 2.9 kmph and record all activities using their in-built three-dimensional (3D) data and high-definition (HD) camera, and also connect patients with their friends and family members via its 10-inch screen.
These humanoid robots use LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) technologies to detect objects in their path to avoid any collisions, and have more than 60 sensors. Additionally, they use open API (application program interface) to allow further customisations, if required. Created by Milagrow Robotics, their battery capacity is 12 hours on a single charge and take four hours to recharge.
While earlier they were being used for cleaning air ducts and pools, and lawn mowing, Rajeev Karwal, founder and CEO, Milagrow, told indianexpress.com that being used at hospitals was “a natural extension during the pandemic”. “For humanoids that were mainly going into hospitality, it required a little adaptation to make them capable of telemedicine, remote consulting, conferences and surveillance. We did it at the first opportunity for AIIMS,” he says, adding that a regular robot costs anything between Rs 80,000 and 12 lakh, while the Humanoid Elf comes for Rs 6.5 lakh.
Today, the robots help in cleaning floors and sanitising spaces using sodium hydrochloride solution, as recommended by ICMR. Taking it a step further, Invento Robotics used ultraviolet light (UV-C) for disinfection in Apollo Hospital, Bangalore. “C-Astra is a disinfection unit for hospitals, offices and retail stores. The six sources mounted onto the robot make powerful UVC irradiation happen in the premises. The robot’s capability to move around while irradiating will ensure that all nooks and corners are covered,” said Balaji Viswanathan, CEO of Invento Robotics.
Agreed Dr Manish Mattoo, Zonal Director, Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore, who says it is the high-infection rates among healthcare workers across the world that prompted them to consider robotic screening. “We are screening the patients, their attendees and our staff at the hospital entrance to ensure no one with the symptoms of Covid-19 is entering the hospital enterprises. With our OPDs resuming, the instances of transmitting the virus can also increase. Thus, this process will help us minimising the chances of virus transmission through human contact,” Dr Matoo, who has examined patients using a robot, said.
As the lockdown threw new challenges for every industry, it was no different for robotics companies. “We faced challenges related to movement and transportation. There were concerns about relying completely on the assessment of a potential health situation by a robot as even the hospitals where these robots were placed have relied on human intervention. Monitoring and tracking the data collection and all other capabilities of the robot while stuck with challenges of the movement were also significant,” said Deepak Sahni, Founder & CEO of Healthians, which has provided robots to Fortis Bangalore that helps collect data from patients through interactive questions.
The robots at the hospital also scan patients for coronavirus symptoms, perform temperature checks and have facial detection capabilities. It also comes with video calling capabilities in case a patient wants to connect with a doctor.
But the challenges are not limited to logistics, the supply chain has been affected too. Since the production of the robots was dependent on a variety of suppliers, there was a delay in assembling the units. However, the government allowed some passes since these devices were going to be used in hospitals, said Viswanathan.
Additionally, in the pre-Covid-19 world, the humanoids would have taken less than a second to recognise a face, but with a face mask, it is difficult to run facial recognition. “We have made changes in algorithms to drive the entire interaction through voice only. We have also focused on user education as there is a learning curve for end-users to be able to have a consultation through a robot,” said Viswanathan.
Humans are social beings and it is natural for us to seek interaction, especially in situations where we might feel vulnerable. Healthcare is one such aspect, so garnering trust from patients to go through the robotic process during illness is a challenge too. “There is also the fact that however advanced machines and technology might become, the human brain is faster with more cognitive capabilities, hence, there exists a chance wherein a human could make a better decision as compared to a robot,” concluded Sahni.
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