Robotics

Cobots vs. COVID-19

23rd June 2020
Joe Bush

Cobots are emerging as a tremendous force for good in the global battle against COVID-19. We take a look at disinfection and test kit solutions along with some less easily categorised (but just as exciting) solutions made possible by Universal Robots, as we look at the battle of Cobots vs. COVID-19.

The global pandemic has seen massive demand for effective deep cleaning and disinfection technologies that don't involve direct human contact with potentially infected areas. In mid-April, researchers at Nanyang Technological University. (NTU) presented their solution to this problem with the unveiling of the eXtremeDisinfection roBOT (XDBOT), which comprises a UR5 cobot fitted with an electrostatic spray nozzle, all mounted on a mobile platform.

Researchers programmed the cobot to mimic human hand movements so that it can get into hard-to-reach areas such as under beds and tables – a feature that’s missing from traditional disinfection robots that are not as dexterous. The system's spray nozzle and large 8.5 litre disinfectant tank enable XDBOT to spread disinfectant quickly over a wide area, without sacrificing deep-cleaning capabilities.

Another important feature of the XDBOT is that it is semi-autonomous. This allows cleaners to remotely control the bot via tablet or laptop, thereby avoiding contact with potentially infected areas.

Capable of running continuously for four hours on a single charge, XDBOT has been successfully tested in public areas in the NTU campus and the team is preparing to trial the technology at local public hospitals.

Also in April, a team at the University of Southern California (USC) revealed its prototype Agile Dexterous Autonomous Mobile Manipulation System-UV (ADAMMS-UV). It's similar to the XDBOT in that it uses a UR5 cobot mounted on a mobile platform. But instead of spraying disinfectant, the ADAMMS-UV uses a UV light wand with an additional UV light source mounted on the base, the UV light is able to break down the DNA of the virus.

Fitted with a gripper from our UR+ partners at Robotiq, the ADAMMS-UV can manipulate objects, enabling the cleaning of hard-to-reach surfaces. Like the XDBOT, the ADAMMS-UV can be remotely operated, ensuring that human workers maintain social distancing regulations and avoid possible infection. Cameras mounted on the cobot assist human operators with navigation. A time-of-flight camera on the robotic arm scans its surroundings and uses infrared light to determine depth. Using this visual information, the ADAMMS-UV then builds a 3D model of the area to be disinfected.

“We actually started developing the mobile cobot application as a solution for machine tending,” says Satyandra Gupta, director of USC Center for Advanced Manufacturing. “We chose a UR5 cobot for this due to the built-in safety, that meant we could use it in collaborative mode around people. UR is the leader in the field of cobots so it was a clear choice for us,” he says, explaining that when the COVID-19 crisis hit, USC was required to clean its own labs. “A lab is complex, you can’t just spray everything with bleach. We looked into UV disinfection and realised that this could work, however, the solutions on the market were for more large-scale disinfections of rooms and would not be able to for example open a drawer, take out an item, place it down and place the disinfection wand over it,” says Gupta, adding that his team is now working on incorporating a second UR5 cobot, so ADAMMS can disinfect twice as fast; one arm can i.e. open a drawer while the other arm carries the wand.

The team has successfully tested the prototype in the lab. Further testing and validation is underway to ensure the technology can be used in public places including hospitals, hotels and offices.

COVID-19 testing with Cobots

COVID-19 has also resulted in unprecedented demand for medical testing. In response to this extraordinary demand, Universal Robots co-founder Esben Østergaard turned his creative energies to the design and development of the world's first autonomous throat swabbing robot launched by Lifeline Robotics, a company he co-founded with the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).

Developed in collaboration with robotics researchers from SDU, the robot uses UR3 cobot arms fitted with a custom 3D-printed end-effector. The process is simplicity itself, beginning with the patient scanning their ID card. Right away, the robot prepares a sample kit, consisting of a container with a printed ID-label and it picks up the swab. Then, using its built-in vision system, the robot identifies the right points to swab in the patient’s throat. As soon as the swab process is complete, the bot places the sample in a jar and screws on the lid. The jar is then sent to a lab for analysis. The entire process takes around seven minutes in total, with the swab itself taking just 25 seconds. The system was officially launched in Denmark at the end of May.

Meanwhile, Houston, Texas-based portable detection manufacturer DetectaChem unveiled a unique smartphone-based COVID-19 testing solution in late May. The company's at-home, low cost COVID-19 test provides results via smart phone in just 15-30 minutes. Three UR10 cobots deployed in the Detecta Chem manufacturing facility are used to remove plastic sheets from around the test kits as they are presented on a rotary table, enabling DetectaChem to quickly ramp up full scale production of its COVID test, pending FDA approval.

Wait, there's more

UR cobots' flexibility helps support the rapid development and deployment of automation –a feature that really comes to the fore in times of crisis. In March, for example, the Spanish car manufacturer SEAT decided to transform one of its assembly lines from its original automotive role to ventilator production. The auto giant installed a UR10e at the end of the line to perform a quality check of the locking mechanism on the unit’s control box.

Elsewhere in Spain, plastics manufacturer Pepri turned its talents to the production of plastic components for hospital beds in high demand. Exploiting the rapid redeployment capabilities of UR cobots, Pepri quickly shifted to production of plastic supports for hospital beds, including lateral supports, headboards and footboards. The UR cobot is used for cutting the blow-moulded plastic parts.

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