Robots, drones, and other technologies are being
deployed in the fight against COVID-19, introducing new opportunities,
challenges, and risks.
From “tele-health” solutions that facilitate care from a distance to robots
that disinfect facilities to drones that
help manage crowds, the pandemic is spurring novel uses of existing
technologies and could lead to new ones as nations, companies, and communities
try to be better prepared for the next outbreak.
Use of video conferencing and other forms of remote health-care delivery
was developed to serve communities with few medical facilities. Today’s extreme
circumstances, however, highlight its broader value.
week said it will expand coverage for telemedicine nationwide to help
seniors with health problems stay home and avoid coronavirus exposure. The
virus threatens to overwhelm the U.S. health system in coming weeks, creating a
need for remote services.
However, a patchwork of state-by-state
regulations is slowing the advance of telemedicine.
“Oregon just rejected us because we didn’t have a facility there, and
they told us to get one before we reapplied,” said James Wantuck, chief medical
officer at San Francisco-based telemedicine firm PlushCare. “North Carolina, we
found out, is really targeting retired doctors who previously had a license in
that state, while other states like Mississippi, Colorado and Florida are
making it very easy for our doctors to get licensed there.”
Over the past week, increased demand has slammed
facilities that are used to serving only a few patients a day and now face
“You can get the technology to support these astounding volumes,” said
Roy Schoenberg, CEO of Boston-based telemedicine company Amwell. “But you’re
very quickly getting to a point where the supply of medical services isn’t
there. We need to have enough clinicians to allow us to handle that incoming
At the Wuchang field hospital in Wuhan, China – epicenter of the first coronavirus outbreak – a ward was staffed with 5G-enabled robots to help contain the contagion and alleviate the strain on human personnel.
Doctors in the United States used
robot-assisted telemedicine to treat the first person in the country
admitted to hospital with 2019-nCoV. In a two-bed isolated area at Providence
Regional Medical Center in Washington – set up five years ago to deal with
Ebola but never used – a robot equipped with a camera, microphone, and
stethoscope enabled the patient consult with clinicians without direct contact.
Robots also are being used
for disinfection. Xenex robots –
manufactured in San Antonio, Texas – use pulsed xenon ultraviolet-C (UVC) light
to destroy pathogens. The company says its devices are being used to clean
hospital rooms where there have been suspected cases of the new coronavirus.
The robot can clean a room in as little as five minutes.
Los Angeles-based Dimer UVC Innovations has developed a germ-killing
robot to sanitize airplanes. The robot – called GermFalcon – is being used at
the Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and
John F. Kennedy International Airport.
In Spain, police are using drones to warn people to stay at home. Spain has declared a state of emergency and ordered citizens to stay indoors, apart from necessary trips, after reporting a sharp rise in coronavirus cases. BBC footage shows deserted Madrid streets policed by drones. The drones are controlled by humans who relay warnings through them via radio.
China drones were deployed to observe crowds and help manage traffic.
People not wearing masks in public could be identified, and the drones were
able to broadcast information to larger areas than regular loudspeakers. They
also used thermal imaging to identify people with elevated body temperatures
and were used to spray disinfectant in public areas.
Expanded use of these technologies against COVID-19 is a logical
continuation of their evolution, but such advances don’t occur in a vacuum. Concerns
about machines replacing human workers – especially if this outbreak ushers in
a new era of “social distancing” – and about normalizing surveillance and use
of drones for crowd control almost certainly will be raised.
If telemedicine gains greater traction, will cost efficiency conflict
with efficacy of care?
Will internet-enabled technologies create more channels for cybercriminals to exploit?
Will greater social acceptance of technological solutions result in
decreased attention to low-cost approaches to containment, like hand washing
and environmental cleanliness?
Policymakers, corporate decision makers, and communities will need to address these and many other questions after this virus has been suppressed.