In every coronavirus news update, there are mentions of infections, deaths, and the quarantines used to battle the outbreak. Now reports are coming out revealing how businesses and governments are turning to high-tech solutions to fight the disease and make life more livable for residence under lockdown.
US grocery stores are using robots to clean floors, check inventory, stock shelves, and deliver groceries to shoppers. It’s all being done in an effort to get people the things they need while minimizing human-to-human exposure.
CNN reports that Brain Corp., which supplies autonomous floor-scrubbing robots to grocers, saw a 13% jump in their robots being used at stores compared to the same time a year ago. Likewise, Walmart, the country’s largest retailer and private employer, “is using the company’s self-driving robots in 1,860 of its more than 4,700 US stores by the end of the year. It will also have robots that scan shelf inventory at 1,000 stores and bots at 1,700 stores that automatically scan boxes as they come off delivery trucks and sort them by department onto conveyor belts by the end of the year.”
While those changes may be too late for the current epidemic, they could produce a positive impact if the coronavirus returns in the fall.
The big worry? The Brookings Institution stated that “any coronavirus-related recession is likely to bring about a spike in labor-replacing automation.” In other words, many of the 15 million retail workers in America could find their jobs replaced due to these robots.
But does this social-distancing-through-automation make an actual difference? The short answer, is yes.
It Worked for China
“The fight against the epidemic cannot be achieved without the support of science and technology,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the beginning of February, according to state news agency Xinhua. He went on to say that strong scientific and technological support will not only save lives but also boost up society’s confidence and determination in fighting the epidemic.
Shortly after that, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology called on the tech sector for more specific help — and they answered.
Drones were used to spray disinfectants in public spaces in east China’s Anhui Province. In the video footage (embedded below), residents are told to take cover as drones take to the sky and release their cargo onto public spaces. Likewise, government workers walk through the streets reminding people to wear masks and stay indoors.
A similar scene played out in Taiyuan, located in central China’s Shanxi province. There, drone tanks sterilized 540,000 square feet with disinfectant every hour.
“We began using them for disinfection and disease prevention,” said Hou Yongfei, deputy secretary-general of the Shanxi Province Unmanned Vehicle Association. “They were used to disinfect prisons and other high-security environments. Now, twice a day, we send them into gated communities where there have been confirmed cases.”
CNN Reports that flying drones are being used to scan large crowds to spot if someone’s in need of medical attention. It’s not clear if the tech is looking at a person’s body temperature or behavior to make that determination. However, the use of flying drones to scan crowds — especially with facial recognition software being so sophisticated — has many privacy activists worried that this could open the door for greater public surveillance.
Robots to the Rescue
Automated robot vehicles are being employed to deliver everything from medical supplies to food — all without humans having to interact. In the video above, originally posted earlier in February, an autonomous delivery robot makes its first delivery to a hospital in Wuhan where the infection broke out.
According to CNN, the robot vehicle’s route is relatively short — about 600 meters to the hospital. Likewise, with much of the city shut down, there’s less chance of the vehicle running into trouble against other drivers or pedestrians.
A similar scene is playing out at a hotel in Yuexiu District, which is being used to quarantine people who have come from infected areas. In this case, the robots are being used for meal delivery. So, rather than needing workers to bring people food, the robot is doing the work, once more cutting down on person-to-person contact and saving on the cost of workers’ protective suits.
Reports of other food delivery robots are popping up all over the internet. Video recently surfaced of a robot named Little Peanut (above), which was seen delivering food to people who were quarantined after traveling on a flight with patients thought to be infected by the Wuhan coronavirus. Similarly, CNN reports, “The food delivery giant Meituan Dianping, for example, introduced robots last week in some of its partners’ restaurants in Beijing that help bring food from kitchens to delivery workers, and to customers waiting for takeout orders.”
Experts say that China has been able to quickly introduce these solutions because of its dedicated focus on technology, a focus that is supported by government funding. The big “win” in all of these cases is cutting out the human-to-human contact, because the more people stay isolated the more likely the virus will stop spreading.
Coronavirus News Update — Sources
CNN — US Grocery Stores
CNN — China
New York Post
Xinhua (Chinese State Media) — Chinese President Xi Jinping (via Google Translate)
Xinhua (Chinese State Media) — Robots being deployed