Robots in the frontline of the fight against COVID-19

As the virus pandemic continues to spread across the world, hospitals are turning to technology to help treat patients and protect doctors and nurses in the process.

A recent article in Science Robotics suggests that robots could be effective resources in combating COVID-19. They can be used for disinfection, to deliver medicine and food and measure vital signs. A hospital at the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in northern Italy is giving us a glimpse of what is possible.

Robot for healthcare
Sanbot (Photo:

Helping healthcare workers

In the town of Varese, close to Italy’s border with Switzerland, clinicians are using robots to check on COVID-19 patients. Equipped with a camera, the robots allow medical staff to keep an eye on their patients and check the medical monitor screens.

The robots have a friendly face with large eyes designed to put patients at ease. In addition to keeping doctors and nurses safe, they help the hospital to cut down on the use of face masks and protective gowns, resources which are in short supply. They also enable patients, if they are well enough, to communicate with medical staff. With over 60 sensors, the robot has the capacity for voice interaction, facial recognition, voice localization, video chat, obstacle avoidance and auto charging. 

The role of IEC standards

IEC produces international standards and develops conformity assessment programmes for many of the technologies that these robots incorporate, such as sensors, batteries, and semiconductors. IEC TC 47 includes sensors in a number of its publications, including international standards for components used in a variety of sensors.

Care robots and other assistive robotic devices form part of the wider category of Active Assisted Living (AAL) technologies. All are designed to enhance the quality of life of users and enable them to lead independent lives through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

The IEC Systems Committee on AAL (SyC AAL), which started work in 2015, has the role of promoting safety, security, privacy and cross-vendor interoperability in the use of AAL systems and services, and of fostering standardization that enables their usability and accessibility.

IEC TC 21 prepares international standards for all secondary cells and batteries, including safety installation principles, performance, battery system aspects, dimensions and labelling.

The Joint Technical Committee of IEC and ISO on information technology (ISO/IEC JTC 1) and several of its subcommittees (SCs) prepare international standards which provide guidance to other IEC and ISO committees developing applications for artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and cloud computing.

In addition, IEC technical committees develop standards for hardware components, such as touchscreens (IEC TC 110) and audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment (IEC TC 100).

Robots at work

More broadly, as workers in factories around the world stay at home, scared of contracting the virus, many manufacturers out there have probably contemplated moving their production lines to full automation. Farmers could use robotic help in their fields or in their greenhouses as the pool of temp workers dries up.

While the pandemic brings the need for robots into sharp focus, it is only accelerating a trend that is already impacting low income jobs, more especially in developed countries. Automatic payment counters have become standard in most shops and railway stations, for example, and people use them without any afterthought.

Robots are increasingly expected to do dull, dirty and dangerous work and COVID-19 has put their usefulness under the spotlight. Shopping warehouses, rely heavily on robots and they are becoming more commonplace in the cleaning industry and even in fast food restaurants.

Addressing societal concerns through standards

It is clear that the virus will have a profound impact on the economy and jobs. One of the ironies of social confinement during the COVID-19 crisis is that while it may protect workers’ health, in some cases it is also taking away their livelihoods. More qualified professionals, such as accountants and surveyors, are not protected either. Robots are never sick and can meet deadlines without fail.

IEC is a founding member of the Open Community for Ethics in Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (OCEANIS). This global forum brings together organizations interested in the development and use of standards as a means to address ethical matters in autonomous and intelligent systems. IEC has also set up a group of its own to identify ethical issues and societal concerns relevant to its standardization work and other technical activities.

While the issue of biased algorithms is often mentioned on the “ethics” agenda, a possibly even more pressing concern is what kind of future do we want? Artificial Intelligence is already changing many aspects of daily life.  AI-related technologies are already being applied to boost efficiency, solve problems and create scalable individualized experiences.  It is vital that digital transformation takes into account issues such as privacy, security and integrity for the widest possible benefit. the goal must be to maximize public good while limiting the risk of inadvertent harm or unintended consequences. The desire to deploy AI rapidly must not be allowed to triumph over the need to study the ethical implications. International standards developed by multiple stakeholders can ensure the right balance is struck.