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Robots to the Rescue During COVID-19 Lockdown


FILE - A cargo-carrying robot called the Gita sits near a waterfront park on Nov. 11, 2019, in Boston.
FILE - A cargo-carrying robot called the Gita sits near a waterfront park on Nov. 11, 2019, in Boston.

When COVID-19 hit Washington, D.C., and health officials said people had to stay 2 meters apart, Broad Branch Market owner Tracy Stannard knew it meant an end to business as usual.

Customers had been packing the store to stock up.

"We realized that it was getting a little too risky to have so many people in the market," Stannard said. "We wanted to keep people outside."

But she also wanted to keep selling groceries.

So she turned to Starship Technologies' delivery robots.

"The bots seemed like a great option," she said.

At a time when human contact is considered a health hazard, robots may be more useful than ever. Though their potential is huge, robots are not quite ready to take on the role, experts said.

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Local celebrities

In Broad Branch Market's neighborhood, the Starship Technologies robots have become local celebrities. Everywhere they go, people stop and shoot pictures and video of the white, six-wheeled, picnic-cooler-sized robots rolling along the sidewalks.

They're great advertising, but they haven't saved her business. "Cash flow is terrible right now," she said.

But they're a help, she added. Without them, "it would be harder. I would be driving a lot, for sure."

And customers appreciate that the bots let them keep their distance.

"I love the fact that it'll come right to my house and that I don't even have to go into the store," customer Rob Okum said. "It's actually super easy and it makes it a lot safer to keep social distancing."

Elsewhere, Starship's robots are delivering restaurant takeout. Other companies, including Kiwibot, Postmates and, of course, Amazon, are also doing various kinds of robot deliveries.

Though this seems like an opportune moment, automated deliveries are not taking off.

"There's a lot of use for robotics right now, but I'm not seeing a tremendous growth in that particular application," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the trade group Association for Advancing Automation.

FILE - A cargo-carrying robot called the Gita sits near a waterfront park on Nov. 11, 2019, in Boston.
FILE - A cargo-carrying robot called the Gita sits near a waterfront park on Nov. 11, 2019, in Boston.

Robot deliveries are only available in a few small areas where the sidewalks and streets aren't too bumpy and the local authorities don't mind letting them share the pavement. There are also plenty of other ways to have stuff delivered, Burnstein said.

Dirty and dangerous

Robots have always been best-suited for dirty and dangerous work, he said, and the COVID-19 pandemic is providing some new opportunities.

Disinfecting robots are zapping germs in a Belgian hospital and spraying disinfectant in the Hong Kong subway.

"If you are in a hospital or office or a warehouse, you probably would like to have a robot do the disinfecting so that people don't have to go in there and do that," Burnstein said. "(The robot) makes it safe before the people come into work."

Robots are helping health workers stay healthy by limiting their interactions with sick patients.

They are delivering food and medicine in India and Thailand.

In Italy, a robot with a camera and touchscreen sits by a patient's bedside, keeping an eye on them so nurses can keep their distance.

Limited applications

But these remain isolated examples. Experts say robots could be doing much more.

"There's so much potential you can do here," Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor Howie Choset said. "Unfortunately, we have not had the resources to develop robots that are needed for this particular pandemic."

Choset said interest in developing tools waxes and wanes with the latest crisis. For example, he said, his research group developed a snake-like robot that could move through tight spaces to search for victims in collapsed buildings. It helped the Red Cross in Mexico City after the 2017 earthquake.

"But we were doing that on a shoestring budget. That robot, no pun intended, was on its last legs" until the earthquake hit, he said. Then, "everybody wanted that robot. And then a couple of weeks after that, people forgot."

Choset said the robot needs more work, but it's been hard to find the funding.

It's not just academics. The robotics industry as a whole is struggling.

"I'm seeing robotics companies shut down, even in the last month, but particularly in the last year, because they were too early for the markets," said Andra Keay, managing director of trade group Silicon Valley Robotics.

Investors are looking for big returns fast, but many companies are not making money yet. It may be 10 or 15 years before they perfect their technology and business models.

"We really needed patient capital in this new wave of robotics," she said.

For now, however, these futuristic workers remain in the future.

"Yes, this is robots' moment," Choset said, "but we're going to make do with what we have."