Will the increased use of robots continue even after Covid-19 is under control?

Chinese hospitals deploy robots to help medical staff fight coronavirus outbreak.
PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/South China Morning Post

When an earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, the country's robotics makers were called on to develop special units that could enter the highly toxic environment and clean up the mess.

It took six years before the robots were able to locate and remove the first melted uranium fuel cells, after a series of failures where they got stuck in debris or experienced circuit malfunctions from excess radiation.

Just over a year ago, remotely controlled robots developed by Toshiba were sent in to start removing contaminated debris.

"What was the message [from Fukushima]? The technology was not mature," said Li Tong, the chief executive of Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics, which earlier this year deployed its robots into a different type of toxic environment: hospitals treating coronavirus patients.

The company deployed nearly 200 delivery robots to more than 80 front-line hospitals across China over the Lunar New Year, when the coronavirus outbreak was overloading the country's health care system.

"This time, robots are in the front line to help human workers to deal with some practical problems," he said.

Chinese robotics companies have seen a surge in demand for their products since the outbreak, deploying them in hospitals and other public areas to deliver food and medicine, to disinfect public spaces and to measure body temperature and help diagnose patients through questionnaires provided by doctors.

Shanghai-based Gaussian Robotics, a seven-year-old start-up, has seen high demand for its robotic cleaner which was repurposed to carry out disinfection in hospitals.

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The company has loaned some of its robots to hospitals at no charge during the pandemic but also saw a spike in orders from commercial customers like shopping malls.

"Orders are 30 to 40 per cent higher than our previous forecast," said Aaron Zhou, the company's chief financial officer. "Because people are isolated from each other, this kind of autonomous robot… can carry out a variety of functions during the [outbreak], including delivery and disinfection in hospitals."

It has also attracted interest from outside China, where the pandemic has worsened in recent weeks. "Israel, Korea, Thailand and also some countries in Europe and the UK, were hesitant [about buying robots] but now have placed orders because of this public health crisis," he added.

In February Chinese President Xi Jinping said that emerging industries such as smart manufacturing and unmanned distribution "have shown strong growth potential".

Robotics is one of 10 core industries identified in Beijing's controversial Made in China 2025 blueprint intended to deliver breakthroughs and create globally competitive companies.

Demand for robots is expected to remain high as Covid-19, which has sickened more than 2 million people globally and killed over 135,000, overloads health care and public sector resources around the world.

In China alone the robotics market is forecast to reach US$103.6 billion (S$150 billion) by 2023, primarily driven by the manufacturing, consumer, retail, health care and resources industries, according to a forecast released in March by consultancy IDC.

However, analysts say it will take a few more years, if not a decade, before robots become commonplace in medical facilities. Meantime, a limiting factor in the short term has been the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, with most robot suppliers relying on stockpiled inventory to meet demand.

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Beijing-based OrionStar, an artificial intelligence and robotics start-up backed by Cheetah Mobile, has received enquiries from previously unserved markets including the US, Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The company has optimised some existing models for use in hospitals. In one case, a reception robot was fitted with an infrared thermometer to detect temperatures of visitors to screen out potential Covid-19 patients.

Robots not only replace human workers - one body temperature-scanning robot can do the work of two or three medical staff - they also process data more efficiently and eliminate unnecessary human-to-human contact, thus reducing cross-infections, according to Leo Chen, vice-president of OrionStar.

For example, doctors can use robots connected to the internet to remotely attend to patients waiting in public areas of hospitals.

Another important role for robots in reducing human-to-human contact is using them to deliver food and medicine directly to patients.

"Not many [delivery] people wanted to have contact with confirmed infections or anybody who had close contact with confirmed cases," said Keenon Robotics' Li. "If it becomes a matter of life and death I think it is necessary to replace humans with robots."

Keenon also posts videos of its robots on short video platform Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. "Before the outbreak, there were only a few thousands views … but now, one of our most popular videos attracted more than 60 million views," said Li.

In Shenzhen, Ubtech Robotics deployed robots in one of the city's biggest infectious diseases hospitals to perform functions such as taking body temperature, answering patient FAQs and tele-health services.

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Lao Peifeng, in charge of the company's industry solutions department, said the most urgent demand from the hospital was for contactless measurement of body temperature, as robots can work 20 times faster than human beings.

"Without robotics, a hospital has to assign two nurses in each of the six daily shifts to measure body temperature, and it takes two seconds for the best forehead thermometer to give a figure," Lao said. Instead, robotic systems using inbuilt infrared cameras can check the temperatures of up to 15 people at one time.

The pandemic is likely to lead to permanent changes in the way people consume, travel, work, and interact, said Glenn Sanders, a senior analyst at research firm Omdia, formerly IHS Markit.

"In 10 years, we may see a world where robots are much more common than they are today," he said.

"As companies begin to formulate strategies for future capital expenses, robots and automation will likely be a high priority. Medical facilities will see the need for scalability of resources, and one solution to this is autonomous robots for diagnosis, delivery, and disinfection."

Still, some are sceptical that the trend will continue after the outbreak eases.

"The benefits of having robots doing simple tasks, like delivering food or medicine, are very important at this moment to avoid infection of health care workers," said David Navarro-Alarcon, an assistant professor of robotics at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"However, once the epidemic passes, these systems don't bring too many benefits."

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"There's a huge difference between a robot working in a perfectly well-structured environment like a factory and in unstructured human environments," he said, adding that while interest in using robots will not fade, it will take time for the current level of robotics technology to catch up.

Barriers to wider implementation of robotics include high initial costs such as changes required to facilities and infrastructure to accommodate them, the need for skilled engineers to programme and retool robots, as well as safety concerns and integration with other processes and data systems, according to Sanders.

While the growth rate of the service robots industry in China is outpacing the rest of the world, Chinese suppliers still rely on imports for core robotics technology, according to a report published in February and co-written by the China Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation.

In an updated report on Made in China 2025 published in July last year, the German-based Mercator Institute for China Studies noted that China's strengths in core technologies such as AI and robotics was still dependent on imported foundational technologies such as semiconductors and new materials.

In the meantime, Chinese robotic companies have also faced supply chain problems as factories shut down due to the pandemic.

Projected growth rates for China's industrial automation equipment market for 2020 has been downgraded. Omdia said in February the sector's growth would slow by 1.1 percentage point to 2 per cent this year but tick up by 0.7 percentage point to 2.7 per cent next year.

"The supply chain disruptions from China have impacted companies around the world that are heavily involved in the automotive and electronics supply chain," Omdia said.

Gaussian Robotics said it faced supply chain problems in the first quarter of the year because upstream and downstream suppliers could not resume normal production during the pandemic, and that it will be April or May before it can meet the increased level or orders.

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However, the supply of critical robotics parts from overseas is not a problem, according to Zhou. "We import some core components [from Germany] but [those companies have] factories and stockpiles in China, so the impact of the pandemic on their supply was almost zero," he said.

For LIDAR, the remote sensing technology used in robotics and autonomous vehicles, Zhou said the company was working with domestic suppliers like RoboSense and DJI.

It remains to be seen whether robots become a permanent fixture in China's health care system after Covid-19 comes under control.

Most of the robots deployed to hospitals and quarantine during the pandemic were on loan and will be returned to the suppliers afterwards. But Zhou is confident that the silver lining of the crisis is that it has given authorities and citizens a taste of what robots can really do.

"When Apple released its first iPhone, no one thought the smartphone would develop into what it is today. At that time, people might have thought 'this is new' but they didn't realise that it was the start of the mobile era. For [robotics], it is the same," said Zhou.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.