Robots are now helping fight the coronavirus

Technologies like robotics are being deployed to triage a global emergency. We spoke to the experts about how and where they're being used.

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We're now accustomed to seeing robots deployed after natural disasters and in areas of heavy contamination. A robotics team, after all, was the quiet hero of the Fukushima disaster cleanup.

But robots helping with a global infectious disease outbreak?

Disruptive technologies like robotics and AI are working hard to fight the spread of the virus. In fact, the coronavirus outbreak is bringing renewed attention to an idea many in the robotics sphere have been trumpeting for some time: telemedicine. 

I reached out to ROBO Global, an index, advisory, and research company in the robotics sphere, for insight. ROBO Global's index offers exposure to companies like Ping-An and Teladoc, which are working in the telemedicine space. That led me to Jeremie Capron, the firm's Director of Research, and Nina Deka, Senior Research Analyst, both of whom offered ZDNet fascinating takes from the front lines of the fight against coronavirus, which is more accurately known as Covid-19.

GN: Can you explain how tele-health and other robotic devices are being used to treat patients and contain the outbreak?

Nina Deka: Covid-19 is impacting the available supply of physicians in Wuhan. Telemedicine enables a doctor to visit over the internet, enabling a patient to see a doctor in a different city. Telemedicine also allows patients to phone in their symptoms from home, eliminating the need to come and sit in a crowded waiting room, where infectious diseases can be further spread. The ROBO Global Healthcare Technology and Innovation ETF (HTEC) offers exposure to this theme with companies like Ping-An and Teladoc.

GN: Is it new that robots would be used in this way?

Jeremie Capron: Today the main robotics application in hospitals remains surgical robots from the likes of Intuitive Surgical, Globus Medical, Siemens Healthineers, Stryker, Medtronic, and J&J. This is a $5Bn+ market growth in excess of 20% per year. But we see other robotics application developing in hospitals: service robots from Siasun Robotics are used to triage patients as they come into healthcare facilities. Autonomous mobile robots such as those made by Aethon are used in hospitals to deliver food, linens, medical equipment, etc. Robotics is also used for pharmacy automation, led by companies like Omnicell.

Nina Deka: Hospitals are tapping into their disaster preparedness budgets to purchase a robot from privately owned Xenex Disinfection services that kill infectious pathogens in under 3 minutes. Xenex's CEO has offered to donate some of these robots to China. UV has been around for medical disinfection for years, but Xenex's proprietary pulsing UV light on a robot takes it to a much more powerful level and has been around for at least seven years. 

GN: What's the outlook for robots in healthcare, specifically as it relates to infectious diseases? 

Nina Deka: There are an estimated 100K annual deaths caused by hospital-acquired infections in the US alone, so there's definitely an opportunity for automation in infectious disease prevention. Robots are already rapidly disrupting other areas of healthcare, with the biggest opportunities in surgery and pharmacy. Companies like Intuitive Surgical, Stryker, and Omnicell, all of which are in the HTEC ETF, are very well positioned for these trends.

GN: AI is being used in lots of medical and pharmaceutical research. Can you help explain how AI has or could be utilized in the case of a global infectious disease outbreak like coronavirus?

Jeremie Capron: More generally, the deployment of AI in healthcare is particularly exciting, with applications ranging from powering surgical robots to improving diagnosis (reading medical imagery), virtual nursing assistants, medication management, etc. And just like other commercial sectors, AI in healthcare is poised to significantly improve efficiency and costs for logistics, business processes, and workflow as well as customer relations. According to a recent Accenture study, key clinical health AI applications can potentially create $150bn in annual savings for the US by 2026.