The COVID-19 pandemic is posing serious challenges to people and businesses around the world. However, new technologies, including robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and drones are enabling scientists, healthcare providers, and government officials to track and understand the virus, minimize unnecessary exposure, and predict what will happen next.
Researchers at Swiss Federal Laboratory have developed a sensor that can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the air. Receptors on the sensor are complementary to the RNA sequences of the virus. This approach offers a no-contact method for clinical making diagnoses in hospitals and identifying the presence of the virus in public spaces like train stations.
Providers at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center are using a continuous temperature sensor, made by VivaLNK, to monitor COVID-19 patients. Those sick with the virus wear a Bluetooth-equipped sensor that wirelessly transmits data to nurses’ stations using a Cassia Gateway. This method minimizes provider contact with infected patients, reducing the risk of exposure.
Smartphone apps using a color-coded health rating system track millions of people in over 200 Chinese cities. Users receive a green, yellow, or red rating based on personal travel and medical histories. The color code determines specific quarantine orders. A green QR code allows people to access public spaces by entering the code at checkpoints.
In the U.S., the public has been submitting information to symptom checker apps like Buoy in Massachusetts, and COVID Near You, by Google, which allows scientists to analyze data to learn about virus trends and patterns. Mobile apps are also helping with contact tracing, alerting users if they may have been exposed to the virus based on locations they’ve visited.
Modified drones assist hospitals, city officials, and the public with pandemic needs including deliveries, disinfecting, surveillance, and public communication.
A payload drop mechanism allows drones to transport medical equipment and supplies to protect delivery people from hot spots like hospitals. Drones also deliver patient samples from hospitals to labs and within hospitals. Companies in China, the U.S., and Australia are using drones to deliver groceries, helping people comply with quarantine and stay-at-home measures.
In several countries, including China, India, Indonesia, and Chile, developers have modified agricultural drones used to spray pesticides to instead spray disinfectants on public spaces. This method is faster and safer than having workers do the cleaning.
Chinese cities are using drones to scan urban areas and identify people violating quarantine orders or not wearing masks. The drones deliver warnings, or other public service messages, through loudspeakers. In China, they also monitor public movement to break up big gatherings, reducing exposure risk for police officers.
New and modified robots are working in hospitals to keep healthcare workers safer by performing risky tasks and freeing up providers to better handle increased workloads.
Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston is using a quadruped robot called Spot, designed by Boston Dynamics, to interview patients who might have COVID-19. Spot is outfitted with an iPad and two-way radio to allow medical staff to interact with patients without direct contact, limiting exposure, and reducing the need for personal protective equipment (PPE).
Robotics and Innovation Lab, at Trinity College in Dublin, created a new robot called Violet, which minimizes the need for human cleaners by using UV-C light to kill the coronavirus. Violet is portable and compact to function in tight spaces like bathrooms and waiting areas. UV light cleaning provides the added benefit of a faster turnaround, as it eliminates drying time.
Cities in China use facial recognition technology, combined with infrared body temperature measurement, to gather data about the spread of the virus and identify potentially infected people. Quarantine centers there use CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition to enforce restrictions.
Some Chinese cities are starting to use facial recognition on buses to detect symptoms in passengers and alert drivers. Chinese AI companies, like SenseTime and Hanwang Technology, developed special facial recognition for use during the pandemic that even works when people are wearing masks.
AI is being used to predict and forecast what might happen next with the virus, and to diagnose patients:
Baidu, a Chinese tech company, created an algorithm that can quickly predict the structure of the virus and what mutations are likely to happen next.
Carnegie Mellon’s DELPHI group is building COVID-specific data sets and using machine learning to adapt influenza forecasting models for use with this virus.
Blue Dot, a Canadian company, used machine learning and natural language processing to recognize, track, and report this novel coronavirus even before the World Health Organization (WHO) did.
Baidu also developed an AI system, using infrared sensors, to carry out large-scale, no-contact temperature measurements, such as in a Beijing railway station, preventing the exposure that comes from manual screening.
Alibaba has an AI-powered diagnostic tool they claim is 96% accurate and takes only 20 seconds or less to detect traces of the virus.
Zhongnan Hospital in China is supplementing the work of radiologists with an AI-driven CT scan interpreter to identify COVID-19 in patients.
While the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are far from over, technologies like robots, drones, and AI are helping to protect healthcare workers and treat patients, while expanding our knowledge of how this virus spreads and what it’s likely to do next.