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How can robots help?

Florian Pestoni

As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to wreak havoc in countries around the world, there’s some reason for hope as the number of new cases in China drops to 0. This shows that with concerted effort by individuals, companies and government, it is possible to limit the exponential scale of the virus.

These past few weeks have seen the widespread adoption of measures to #flattenthecurve in several locations, including here in Silicon Valley where local activity has ground to a halt in response to “shelter-in-place” orders. While knowledge workers adapt to working from home (and share profusely their pro-tips with each other), many jobs that consist of more than “pushing bits” don’t lend themselves to the current WFH craze. Or do they?

This is where #robotscanhelp. When most people think of robots, they may picture the “dumb” robots that build cars, blindly welding the same spot over and over, or the imagined “self-aware” (and occasionally self-conscious) robots of sci-fi movies like Star Wars’ C3PO or Futurama’s Bender. However, there’s a new and very real class of robots that can generously be thought of as “smart”, in the sense that they are able to respond to their environment. We call these robots autonomous; as we will discuss shortly, there are limits to the degree of autonomy they can achieve. But first: what can they do and how can they help in light of COVID-19?

The answer is a lot and in many ways. One of the obvious applications is using robots in hospitals. We are already seeing robots being used for sterilization (Xenex, UVD Robots), to help carry materials (Aethon, Savioke) or offload other tasks from nurses (Diligent). Robots may also be used in quarantine hotels to protect the staff by delivering goods.

Beyond healthcare, there are many needs that currently require heavy manual labor where robots can help. For instance, in food production we have indoor/controlled agriculture companies (IronOx, Hippo Harvest), autonomous tractors (Bear Flag), robots for picking tomatoes (Root AI) and strawberries (Advanced Farm) to name a few.

As we have seen from partial shortages, keeping retail shelves stocked requires coordination throughout the supply chain. This is an area where significant innovation has occurred over the last several years, from custom-built material handling robots developed by rapidly growing startups (Fetch, Locus, GreyOrange) to mature companies introducing autonomous solutions (Crown) as well as acquisitions in the space (AutoGuide, 6 River Systems).

While many of us stay indoors to starve the virus, we still have to eat. In retail stores, it’s becoming increasingly common to find inventory management robots (Bossa Nova, Zippedi) and floor scrubbers (Tennant, Brain). At restaurants, there’s active work on improving or reimagining the cooking process (Creator, Miso). Many companies are working on home-delivery of food (Postmates, Starship, Kiwi) and groceries (Nuro), in addition to various experimental services for drone or ground-based autonomous delivery by ecommerce giants (Walmart, Amazon).

The list of tasks in essential industries that can be tackled by robots goes on: security patrolling, powerline inspection, construction, mining, etc. There are thousands of innovative robotics companies working on novel ways in which #robotscanhelp. And all this is here to stay.

While we can expect to recover from the current public health crisis, we may not be going back to business as usual. The pandemic has exposed critical weaknesses in many of the areas listed above, which have in common a reliance on human labor. If people need to stay home to limit contagion, how will we continue to produce food and distribute it? How can we build more housing to support isolation? How can we ensure shared spaces are kept clean?

Robots don’t need social distancing: they can effectively perform duties 24/7 with full immunity to “human” viruses. Imagine how much better equipped we would be for the current crisis with robot fleets widely deployed to tirelessly and reliably meet the demand, reducing risks of exposure for human workers, who will ultimately be able to take on safer and less tedious roles.

However, we need to ask ourselves: is robotics ready to pick up the slack? This is where reality meets expectations. While I previously described robots as “autonomous”, this is not an absolute concept. Most autonomous robots operate within a relatively narrow operational range. While this keeps expanding, it will be a long time (if ever) before it’s possible to run complex operations like an e-commerce distribution center or a farm purely autonomously. These robots cannot surpass human flexibility, adaptability and general problem solving.

One solution is to combine the best of both: using robots to handle tasks within their relatively limited range with great efficiency, and falling back on humans to resolve the myriad of corner cases that occur. In this case, (some) labor could be decoupled from location, essentially extending #WFH to other tasks. While there will still be a need for on-site work, more and more of this work could be done from a safe(r) location.

Several companies in robotics are relying on humans plus robots working together, in some cases through “teleoperation”, where an operator can send remote commands to a robot to affect its behavior. While some companies are applying this in the self-driving car/truck space, this is a space where the safety bar is extremely high and the hype got ahead of reality, which is already resulting in some business casualties.

The ultimate goal of Level 5 autonomy, where “the vehicle can do all the driving in all circumstances”, was promised to be around the corner a few years ago, but is now widely acknowledged to be 10 years away or more. However, in other areas, including semi-structured environments (like hospitals and warehouses) and with different safety parameters (a 1,000 lbs. robot moving at 5 mph vs an 80,000 truck at 55 mph), this is not possible today and growing rapidly.

This is one of the many capabilities that companies such as InOrbit are enabling. We don’t make the robots, but we enable people to remotely operate large fleets of robots efficiently. Since inception, we have offered early stage robotics startups free access to our platform to help get them on the right track; now we are increasing the number of free robots for companies working on the forefront of our response to COVID-19 and other threats.

In partnership with robot developers and operators, we can bridge the autonomy gap to:

  • help people get more done without risking their well-being;
  • help lower the cost of essential goods we all rely upon;
  • help keep our systems working in the face of environmental, demographic and health risks.

Human ingenuity and resilience, when focused on doing good and responding to major risks, can have amazing, positive impact. Now is the time for all of us to pull together to address our current and future challenges. #robotscanhelp