Robots, drones, and other technologies are being deployed in the fight against COVID-19, introducing new opportunities, challenges, and risks.
From “tele-health” solutions that facilitate care from a distance to robots that disinfect facilities to drones that help manage crowds, the pandemic is spurring novel uses of existing technologies and could lead to new ones as nations, companies, and communities try to be better prepared for the next outbreak.
Use of video conferencing and other forms of remote health-care delivery was developed to serve communities with few medical facilities. Today’s extreme circumstances, however, highlight its broader value.
Medicare this week said it will expand coverage for telemedicine nationwide to help seniors with health problems stay home and avoid coronavirus exposure. The virus threatens to overwhelm the U.S. health system in coming weeks, creating a need for remote services.
However, a patchwork of state-by-state regulations is slowing the advance of telemedicine.
“Oregon just rejected us because we didn’t have a facility there, and they told us to get one before we reapplied,” said James Wantuck, chief medical officer at San Francisco-based telemedicine firm PlushCare. “North Carolina, we found out, is really targeting retired doctors who previously had a license in that state, while other states like Mississippi, Colorado and Florida are making it very easy for our doctors to get licensed there.”
Over the past week, increased demand has slammed facilities that are used to serving only a few patients a day and now face backlogs.
“You can get the technology to support these astounding volumes,” said Roy Schoenberg, CEO of Boston-based telemedicine company Amwell. “But you’re very quickly getting to a point where the supply of medical services isn’t there. We need to have enough clinicians to allow us to handle that incoming volume.”
At the Wuchang field hospital in Wuhan, China – epicenter of the first coronavirus outbreak – a ward was staffed with 5G-enabled robots to help contain the contagion and alleviate the strain on human personnel.
Doctors in the United States used robot-assisted telemedicine to treat the first person in the country admitted to hospital with 2019-nCoV. In a two-bed isolated area at Providence Regional Medical Center in Washington – set up five years ago to deal with Ebola but never used – a robot equipped with a camera, microphone, and stethoscope enabled the patient consult with clinicians without direct contact.
Robots also are being used for disinfection. Xenex robots – manufactured in San Antonio, Texas – use pulsed xenon ultraviolet-C (UVC) light to destroy pathogens. The company says its devices are being used to clean hospital rooms where there have been suspected cases of the new coronavirus. The robot can clean a room in as little as five minutes.
Los Angeles-based Dimer UVC Innovations has developed a germ-killing robot to sanitize airplanes. The robot – called GermFalcon – is being used at the Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and John F. Kennedy International Airport.
In Spain, police are using drones to warn people to stay at home. Spain has declared a state of emergency and ordered citizens to stay indoors, apart from necessary trips, after reporting a sharp rise in coronavirus cases. BBC footage shows deserted Madrid streets policed by drones. The drones are controlled by humans who relay warnings through them via radio.
Similarly, in China drones were deployed to observe crowds and help manage traffic. People not wearing masks in public could be identified, and the drones were able to broadcast information to larger areas than regular loudspeakers. They also used thermal imaging to identify people with elevated body temperatures and were used to spray disinfectant in public areas.
Expanded use of these technologies against COVID-19 is a logical continuation of their evolution, but such advances don’t occur in a vacuum. Concerns about machines replacing human workers – especially if this outbreak ushers in a new era of “social distancing” – and about normalizing surveillance and use of drones for crowd control almost certainly will be raised.
If telemedicine gains greater traction, will cost efficiency conflict with efficacy of care?
Will internet-enabled technologies create more channels for cybercriminals to exploit?
Will greater social acceptance of technological solutions result in decreased attention to low-cost approaches to containment, like hand washing and environmental cleanliness?
Policymakers, corporate decision makers, and communities will need to address these and many other questions after this virus has been suppressed.