Researchers at a Chinese university have designed a robot they say could help save lives on the frontline during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The machine, developed by engineers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, consists of a robotic arm on wheels that can perform ultrasounds, take mouth swabs and listen to sounds made by a patient’s organs, usually done with a stethoscope.
Such tasks are normally carried out by doctors in person. But the researchers said that with this robot, which is fitted with cameras, medical personnel do not need to be in the same room as the patient, and could even be in a different city.
“Doctors are all very brave,” said Tsinghua University professor Zheng Gangtie, the robot’s chief designer. “But this virus is just too contagious... We can use robots to perform the most dangerous tasks.”
Full image of robot
According to Gangtie, the idea of developing a robot came to him around the turn of the Chinese New Year, where Wuhan had just been put on lockdown and the number of cases and deaths was rising rapidly every day.
With a background in engineering, Gangtie said that he wanted to take his expertise to contribute to the relief effort. On the first day of the Lunar New Year, he heard from his friend, Dong Jiahong, executive president at Beijing’s Tsinghua Changgung Hospital, that the biggest problem was that of frontline workers getting infected.
To prevent medical staff from getting the coronavirus, Gangtie and a team from the university converted two mechanised robotic arms with the same technology used on space stations and lunar explorers.
Coronavirus robot being demonstrated
Gangtie said the robots were almost entirely automated, and could even disinfect themselves after performing actions involving contact with infected patients. However, he added that “the feedback from doctors was that it would be better for there to be less automation, as a personal presence would comfort and calm the patient”.
The two newly developed robots have been trialled by doctors at hospitals in Beijing. And according to the researchers, one is still currently at the team’s lab at the university, but the other is at the Wuhan Union Hospital, where doctors started training to use it today (5 March).
If all goes to plan, the robot may be put to use on coronavirus patients in Wuhan from Sunday (8 March), Gangtie said, adding that it would be joined on its ward rounds by a nurse or other members of staff.
Coronavirus robot being demonstrated
Gangtie disclosed that he would like to build more robots to help the medical staff in the midst of the outbreak, but said funding from the university has run out. The robots cost RMB500,000 (£55,800) a piece to make. He added that he does not plan on commercialising the robot design, but hopes a company comes along to take that on.
According to state media, China has sent tens of thousands of medical workers to the epicentre of the outbreak, Hubei province. As a result, more than 3,000 medical workers had been infected by late last month, including Li Wenliang, a doctor who was among the first to warn publicly about the outbreak, whose death in early February sparked a brief and rare outpouring of grief and rage on Chinese social media.
Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, Mar 4, 2020
In related news, aerospace company Airbus is reportedly considering cutting production of its A330neo commercial aircraft as the coronavirus outbreak cuts into travel demand, causing large airlines to rethink their expansion plans for the year.
According to a Bloomberg report, the European plane manufacturer is reviewing production plans and could make a decision on the A330’s future as early as this month.
The decision is likely to be driven by a decision last month by Air Asia Group to postpone deliveries of new A330neos, with the report saying that Air Asia is responsible for about 25 per cent of outstanding orders for the plane.
According to report, Air Asia has a lot of its capacity tied to China and likely “felt the pinch” from coronavirus sooner than most western airlines – however, the impact is spreading along with the virus.
Although Airbus and competitors Boeing still enjoy substantial order backlogs for their narrow body A320 and 737 models, the market for widebody planes such as the A330 was expected to soften even before coronavirus concerns hit.
Google, Microsoft, Adobe and other digital companies have all cancelled their upcoming tech conferences over concerns about The virus’s transmission. Also, in February the 2020 Mobile World Congress (MWC) fell victim to the epidemic and was also cancelled.
In the world of aviation, British Airways (BA) warned that demand for its flights is down, while EasyJet has said it will be cancelling flights, especially those to and from Italy.