Robotic arm designed in China could help save lives on medical frontline

COVID Treatment Robot

Researchers at one of China’s top universities have designed a robot they say could help save lives on the frontline during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The machine 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 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.”

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Gathering a team, Zheng set to work converting two mechanized robotic arms with the same technology used on space stations and lunar explorers. The robots were almost entirely automated, and could even disinfect themselves after performing actions involving contact, Zheng said.

The team now has two robots, which have been trialled by doctors at hospitals in Beijing. One is still at the team’s lab at the university, but the other is at the Wuhan Union Hospital, where doctors started training to use it on Thursday.

If all goes to plan, the robot may be put to use on coronavirus patients in Wuhan from Sunday, Zheng said. It would be joined on its ward rounds by a nurse or other member of staff.

Zheng would like to build more such robots but funding from the university has run out. The robots cost US$ 72,000 a piece to make. He does not plan on commercializing his robot design but hopes a company comes along to take that on.

China has sent tens of thousands of medical workers to the epicenter of the outbreak, Hubei province, state media say. During the outbreak of coronavirus in China, more than 3,000 medical workers were infected.

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