The ongoing global pandemic has forced just about everything online, as we try to minimize human contact to slow the spread of the virus. This has the potential to accelerate the adoption and development of robotics technologies. As a society, we have the option of trying to return to how things were or building a new way of doing things that is more robust to situations like we find ourselves in or optimizes for some of the issues that COVID has brought into clear view.
From my own musings and a variety of podcasts and papers, here are a few places that I think robotics could be applied in the future
This is the most obvious sector of application of robotics that COVID brings to emphasis. Most applications of robotics in the medical field are exploitations of the simple fact that metal cannot get sick. Robotics has been used for disinfection of different areas of frequent use during this pandemic and in some cases to transport non-technical items such as food to patients. These both take advantage of the non-infectivity of the robotic systems and I would love to see these take more prominence even after the pandemic. The one point of loss I can immediately see is the lack of social interaction when a patient is isolated in a bed and has limited interactions further restricted by the robot.
This could be addressed by giving the system social functionality, like Baymax from the 2014 film Big Hero Six, or allowing it to be remotely piloted by a doctor or family member. A doctor teleoperating could also consult the patient and check their subjective state without having to put themselves at risk.
Extending the delivery aspect beyond food for patients, food delivery has taken off during the pandemic. GrubHub and Uber stock have both increased dramatically. Amazon has increased as well and their recent acquisition of Zoox has indicated the potential for further autonomous robotics work by Amazon. The systems currently under development by Agility Robotics is seeking to address this very topic, with a bipedal robot to transport goods from a vehicle to your doorstep. Postmates and Starship Robotics are both working on robots to transport goods in a similar way to conventional USPS or delivery trucks. These, however, are much smaller and autonomous. They have already been deployed in various places including universities to do deliveries and I believe that their deployment could be further accelerated by the need for social distancing that the pandemic has brought about.
Teleoperation is one of the most diverse fields for the application of robotics. A few important sectors that came to mind when considering the locals of application were manufacturing, research and social interactions. Many manufacturing plants were shut down or forced to work at reduced capacity. While many plants have some level of automation, a teleoperated system could allow the preservation of the human intervention that is utilized in many of these systems. On the research front, universities were forced to restrict access to labs, something that robotics could be used to minimize. Social interaction is probably the broadest application. Businesses could use tele-op to allow for meetings that would benefit from spatial presence (VR could address similar things but that is for a different post).
This article is very high level, I don’t go into much specifics beyond potential points of application because there are a wide range of nuances in how each of these can and should be implemented and I am sure that I missed some other fields that would benefit from robotics as well. Let me know what you think, or correct me in the comments!