Other than emergencies, a visit to a hospital normally starts at the reception desk. But in a world turned upside down by covid-19, where human touch has to be minimized, the first point of contact in some Bengaluru hospitals is a humanoid.
Built by Bengaluru robotics startup Invento, these humanoids are equipped to do more than hand out sanitizers. They engage with visitors to collect patient information, including possible exposure to the SARS-Cov-2 virus, which causes covid-19. They’re equipped with a thermal imaging device to take a patient’s temperature without sticking a thermometer in the mouth.
Invento has collaborated with other startups to equip its hospital humanoids. The contactless thermometer comes from Bengaluru AI startup Niramai whose core business uses thermal imaging with analytics to detect breast cancer in a non-invasive way. This technology has been adapted for use as thermometers by Invento’s humanoids Mitra and Mitri.
Once the patient is screened, and shows no sign of coronavirus, she takes a printout from the humanoid and proceeds to the receptionist who has moved to an inner area. If an abnormal temperature is detected there or some other risk factor is flagged, a second humanoid escorts the patient to a room with another robot.
This third robot uses a telemedicine link to connect the patient to a doctor in another room or hospital. The robot moves around the patient to help remote diagnosis.
Next month, it will have more diagnostic tools such as a portable ECG and stethoscope, for which Invento is partnering with another startup, Healthians. This will also enable the humanoid to go into wards to monitor patients, minimizing contact for hospital staff, says Invento’s co-founder and CEO, Balaji Viswanathan.
There’s a lot of hype about robots delivering medicines in hospitals around the country. But Viswanathan says it will take a while before the right medicines can be delivered to patients in a foolproof way. What’s immediately doable is delivering food in isolation wards. Invento has a trolley robot called Spody, primarily made for retail shopping, which can be adapted for this.
Healthcare was one of its target areas when Invento started out a few years ago. “We went around to a number of hospitals but they were lukewarm towards adopting robotics technology," says Viswanathan. The startup then focused on using its humanoids for customer engagement in banks. Coronavirus has now brought it back to where it started as healthcare suddenly needs robots the most.
Many challenges remain. For example, the humanoid collecting patient info at the front end needs to be integrated with backend systems for automation to work best.
There’s also the issue of robots getting blocked inadvertently. Invento has improvised what it calls “a human in the loop." So a human manager monitors a set of three or four robots, so that she can signal a robot to find a way around a hurdle.
Robotics startups are getting involved with managing coronavirus in multiple ways. “Last week we helped Delhi police fly our drones over Daryaganj and RK Puram to inspect social distancing," says Professor Aakash Sinha of Shiv Nadar University, who is also the founder and CEO of Omnipresent Robot Tech.
“Enforcing social distancing will become a big challenge when the lockdown opens up. This is where a combination of drones, robots, and video analytics can help control the spread of the pandemic," says Sinha.
Drones are also being used to disinfect public places. “The challenge in adoption was a delay in drone regulations. But this has changed with the new DGCA regulatory framework. We have now received approval for our drones," says Sinha.
India has been slow to adopt robots and drones due to the availability of a large workforce, but Covid-19 could change this perspective. “Minimal human contact would become a requirement for several businesses and could accelerate their adoption of robots, drones and AI-based video analytics," says Sinha.
Currently, the main focus is healthcare applications. Sanitization is another area where robots come in. “We have modified our cleaning robots so that they can be used for wet cleaning as well with sodium hypochlorite solution to remove virus spores in hospitals," says Rajeev Karwal, founder of Gurugram-based Milagrow.
Invento is experimenting with lamps made in Germany that emit ultraviolet light of a certain wavelength shown to destroy the coronavirus. The ultraviolet radiation can harm humans too, but robots fitted with the lamps could disinfect unpopulated spaces safely.
Malavika Velayanikal is a Consulting Editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu