Robotics in the Fight Against Infectious Diseases

Robots can make significant contributions to curbing the spread of infectious diseases

The fourth industrial revolution merges technologies spanning the digital, physical, and biological spheres to produce transformative advances and exponential increases in efficiency. One field that has become increasingly integrated is robotics. Robots have been with us for more than six decades. During this time, the technology has significantly progressed from basic mechanical support systems to sophisticated, fully automated vehicles, including for space exploration.

One hindrance, however, has been the lack of flexible gripping mechanisms to enable robots to handle and perform dextrous manipulation of objects. Now, the powerful societal changes that have taken place since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have spurred an increased demand for robotics. For example, there has been a growth in office and retail cleaning services that use robots for disinfection, and robotics is becoming further integrated into health care. As a result, robotics is receiving significant attention from researchers to attain levels of dexterity comparable to that of a young child.

During the current pandemic, the demand for robots suggests that they can contribute significantly to the fight against infectious diseases. Areas that have benefited from robots include public safety (disinfecting public spaces), clinical care (health care telepresence), laboratories (sample testing), logistics (sample delivery), nonhospital care (protect the elderly from exposure), and more recently, the continuity of work and education (warehouse automation).

Robots in clinical care

For clinical care, robots are predominantly used in remote health care and disinfection, and for dispensing meals and prescriptions, where the idea is to reduce contact time between medical personnel and infectious patients. A recent study conducted by the Brigham and Women's Hospital and MIT found that robots are also well received by patients. Robotic solutions can replace manual disinfection in hospitals and care homes. Such robots can navigate high-risk areas and use a combination of UV-C light and a vaporizer to disinfect a room. Robots can also interact directly with patients by taking on tasks such as delivering food and medication, measuring patients’ temperatures, and providing social support by interacting with patients.

Handling infectious materials

Another area well-suited for robotics is in handling infectious materials. Using robots for this task can help mitigate the risk of exposing medical personnel to infected samples while simultaneously eliminating repetitive tasks, such as collecting and testing samples. Consequently, an automated system for infectious material handling would support clinicians, particularly during outbreaks where cases rise exponentially.

Several teleoperated and autonomous prototypes now being trialed in hospital settings can help collect patient samples. Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark were the first to develop a fully automated robot that can perform COVID-19 throat swabs, while scientists in Singapore have built a patient-controlled robot that can carry out nasal swabs. Using robots also helps improve the quality of the sample collected, which would usually be dependent on the skill of the operator. Prototypes with the required dexterity and flexibility enable the operator to sample the oropharyngeal area efficiently and effectively. These robots often include tongue depressors and endoscopes to aid in the sampling. Automating sample collection can improve the consistency of sampling, thereby reducing false negative results during downstream testing. In addition, their design reduces the risk of cross-infection between patients being sampled.

Ongoing research is investigating the use of robots for drawing blood samples and administering fluids through an image-guided autonomous operation. Results thus far suggest the potential for such a system to outperform humans and advance these robots for eventual clinical use.

Automating laboratory testing

A further benefit of using robots to collect samples during major outbreaks is that it frees medical personnel to concentrate on complex problems. After collecting samples, the next step is laboratory testing—another area in which robots are helpful.

Testing samples to identify and quarantine infectious people is critical to contain the spread of infectious diseases. Robotics can rapidly expand testing capacity to achieve high throughput, especially when there is a lack of testing capacity, as seen in the current COVID-19 pandemic. As with sampling, automating laboratory testing prevents medical personnel from being exposed to infectious agents.

Laboratories, by and large, already use some level of automation, but in most cases, even though sample preparation and testing are automated, lab staff are still required to handle the samples between the automated steps, putting them at risk. The aim is to achieve a closed-loop process in which technicians input samples and the machine performs the preparation, testing, and interpretation. In this instance, a modular design is advantageous. Such a design allows robots to be adaptive to the testing requirements of different infectious agents. One such closed-loop system is the STRIP-1 test robot, nicknamed “The Beast,” that was developed by researchers from the Hubrecht Institute and Genmab, an international biotech company. This robot can process 14,000 samples a day and is used in coronavirus testing.

Curbing the spread of infectious diseases

Robotics has come a long way since its inception—robots can now make significant contributions to curbing the spread of infectious diseases. In particular, machines can perform tasks that would otherwise place medical personnel at risk of infection, such as disinfection, sampling patients, and testing samples. By integrating robotics into health care, risk can be mitigated, and capacity and throughput maximized.