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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Highlighted the Importance of Robotics in the UK

June 28, 2020 by Luke James

At UK Robotics Week 2020, the chair of the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (UK-RAS) Network commented on how the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how robotics can play a key role in managing future unexpected pandemics and events.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an unprecedented number of companies and philanthropists galvanized into taking action, coming together to develop and deploy cutting-edge technological solutions to address the many pressing challenges that it has presented. As a result, we are now seeing compelling examples of specific tasks that robotics are able to perform effectively. 

From robotic dogs encouraging people to socially distance in a park in Singapore to other robots being used to disinfect rooms in hospitals, transport food, and deliver medical supplies, applications like this are helping us explore what robotics could do in the future to address similar pandemic and crises. 

These are the words of Professor Robert Richardson, Chair of UK-RAS Network, during UK Robotics Week 2020


Robotic hand on display at UK robotics week.

A robotic hand on display at the Internal Robotics Showcase, organized by UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network. Image Credit: UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network.


Robotics Have an Important Role to Play

A key challenge for the future and a major focus of current robotics research is the ability to build robotics that are highly adaptable and capable of carrying out multiple tasks. This ability, he says, will see us develop next-gen robotics that are able to efficiently and effectively respond to future crises. 

For example, robots that were initially tasked with cleaning could be re-deployed to repair infrastructure, disinfect mission-critical spaces such as hospitals to mitigate viral risk or participate in search-and-rescue missions. When this vital ecosystem is in place, it will be possible to manipulate the way robotics technologies work for us and benefit from robotics with multiple functions and re-use capabilities.

Aside from responding to crises and disasters, robotics technologies are already effectively working in other hazardous environments and removing the human element from high-risk scenarios, and Richardson adds that he expects the use of robots in this key area to increase. 


SPOT, a Boston Dynamics robot used to enforce social distancing in Singapore.

SPOT, a Boston Dynamics robot being used to enforce social distancing in Singapore's Bishan-Ang Mo Kio. Image Credit: GovTech Singapore.


However, it is hard to ignore just how much the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us what the effective deployment of robotics can achieve, and this will undoubtedly accelerate future robotics innovation and development, for example, robotic co-workers (“cobots” or “co-robots”). These robotic systems could be deployed in areas like manufacturing where two or more people are typically needed to carry out a task.

Instead of two humans, one human and one robot could work together so that social distancing can be maintained more easily. In a similar vein, factories and production lines that automate processes with robotics could switch more readily to producing an entirely different set of items to meet a sudden surge in demand, such as face masks and hand sanitizer. 

Richardson concluded by saying that although we have seen exceptional progress in robotics development in recent years, the focus will need to be on delivering more sophisticated intelligence in robotics systems to see systems that are more adaptable and capable of making better, faster decisions. 

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