Coronavirus Isolation Wards in India Might Soon Be Run by Robots

Tech and robotics experts are innovating to protect doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals from the risk of contracting coronavirus.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
March 25, 2020, 10:59am
Coronavirus Isolation wards will soon have robots helping patients
A nurse wearing protective gear looks out from an isolation ward, where patients coming from Hong Kong are kept a preventative measure following the coronavirus outbreak in Hyderabad, on January 28, 2020. Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP

Unlike the rest of Indian states, which started taking extreme measures to prevent further spread of coronavirus only over the last week (culminating to a complete lockdown for 21 days), Kerala has been on a war footing since the first week of February, when they got India’s first few cases of the pandemic. And as the latest, and the most pressing, concern now looms large in the form of a massive shortage of protective equipment for healthcare professionals, experts in Kerala are already on to a solution: robots.

Kochi-based Asimov Robotics has developed a three-wheeled robot that can be used to help and assist COVID-19-positive patients in isolation wards. This will include helping them at close quarters with things like food and medication, something that nurses and doctors have been doing so far, consequently putting them at larger risk of contracting the virus themselves. “It is impractical to deploy human-like robots in hospitals. This is why we are working on a cost-effective model which is very practical at this point,” Jayakrishnan T, the founder and CEO of Asimov Robotics, told The Indian Express. After developing the first robot in 15 days by a team of seven, the firm says they will be able to manufacture one robot a day after it launches.

“We have completed the prototype of the robot. It does not have arms but has a detachable container that self-disinfects the items it uses,” Jayakrishnan told the Economic Times (ET). “Since it is removable, it can be periodically sterilised too.” The tech firm, which is currently in talks with the Ernakulam district health authorities for approval to start deploying the robots at the earliest, is reportedly using cost-effective measures to create the mould and the spare parts. The robot, called KARMI-BOT, comes with upper and lower trays that will be equipped with food and hospital equipment. It is also tasked to disinfect used items in the quarantine zones.

Apart from the services usually associated with manual tasks (like serving, or helping with medicines), the robots also come with an in-built video-conferencing facility, which will connect the healthcare workers with the patients remotely, and allow interactions without the risk of physical attendance. However, the firm, which gained huge popularity a few weeks ago for deploying robots to give out masks and hand sanitisers in Kochi, has maintained this new model has been designed mainly for isolation wards.

Similar technological advancements are being made across the country as tech innovators and entrepreneurs realise the demand and requirements of AI at a time like this, especially as India has very few high-tech robotics firms that focus on healthcare. But this trend is there across the world, as robotics providers rush to respond to the coronavirus crisis. In countries like China, US and Europe, robots are being used to disinfect, take temperatures and even prepare foods for coronavirus-positive patients.

“These startups, like Asimov Robotics, have many products that can be pivoted into being used as solutions in times like this,” said Saji Gopinath, head of Kerala Start Up Mission. “We felt that using robotics to help with caregiving and other non-essential medical procedures such as delivery of food or medication can considerably reduce the burden on healthcare workers.” Yet another Gurgaon-based tech startup has launched an electronic temperature scanner, which does away with the task of manual thermal scanning checks, and uses video analytics to alert the users of body temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius.

In India, such technologies could save hundreds of lives that are on the line right now. “This is a great time for technology to effectively and efficiently improve the situation,” Prasad Balakrishnan Nair, CEO of the Maker Village, an electronics hardware incubator located in Kochi, told ET. “We are promoting a number of initiatives that could be of assistance in these trying times.”

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