On December 31, China alerted World Health Organization (WHO) to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in the central Hubei province. Since then, COVID-19 has become a global threat. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, on March 11 declared COVID-19 a pandemic, pointing to the over 118,000 cases of the coronavirus illness in over 110 countries and territories around the world and the sustained risk of further global spread. The outbreak continues to spread in Europe and the U.S., and the total cases surpassed 200,000 on March 20 with growing impact on the global economy. While international efforts to develop vaccine for COVID-19 are underway, drones, robots and other new technologies that are now commonly used in manufacturing sector are deployed to minimize human-to-human contact and thus curtail the spread of the deadly virus.

Surveillance drones to enforce quarantine and social distancing

In countries and areas where quarantine and lockdown are enforced, drones are used to persuade citizens to stay home, wear masks and wash hands. China, for example, has adapted and co-opted industrial drones to help ensure that an estimated 50 million residents are kept at home and indoors across a dozen cities. The use of drones helped local authorities and police avoid directly contacting with potentially infected persons when they enforce quarantine and social distancing. In Yichun, Jiangxi province, drones equipped with an infrared thermal imaging lens and a loudspeaker are also used to detect people with fever at a certain distance and broadcast messages about protective measures to residents. Some also use agricultural drones that are normally used to spray pesticide to sanitize the street. XAG, a Chinese agriculture technology company, set up a 5-million-yuan special fund for providing XAG’s agricultural drone users with technical support to properly carry out aerial disinfectant sprays. China’s weibo even featured a video of a drone smashing outside mahjong table to prevent people gathering and playing games. Spanish authorities are also using drones equipped with microphones to identify and persuade people who are not following the lockdown orders.

Autonomous delivery and disinfection by AVG and delivery robots

AVG and delivery robots are also used to avoid human-to-human contact. Since February, autonomous delivery robot developed by JD Logistics has been deployed to deliver medical aid to a hospital. Also, unmanned transport and disinfection vehicles developed by Neolix and Idriverplus, a partner of Apollo, a self-driving technology consortium led by Baidu, respectively, are used at quarantine centers in Beijing to disinfect isolation areas and deliver meals. Antwork, another tech startup in Hangzhou, is employing its UAV system to transport medical samples and quarantine supplies in China to fight the coronavirus.

Using drones has increased the speed of transport by more than 50% compared to road transportation. Previously, Antwork worked with Starbucks delivering coffee to more than 10,000 people while completing around 9,000 drone deliveries. Automatic, unmanned air delivery also ensures that the goods can be delivered with minimum contact between medical samples and personnel.

At the end of February, Danish company UVD Robots and Chinese medical supplies company Sunay Healthcare Supply signed an agreement to provide self-driving Danish disinfection robots to hospitals in China. Using ultraviolet light, the robot can disinfect and kill viruses and bacteria autonomously, effectively limiting the spread of coronavirus without exposing hospital staff to the infection risk. The first robot was shipped in late February, with many more to be shipped and to be deployed in more than 2,000 hospitals.

Online treatment and robot doctor

Demand for telemedicine is also growing rapidly as millions of Chinese are seeking treatment and advice on the internet. JD Health announced that the monthly consultations for JD’s Internet Hospital platform have grown tenfold since the outbreak to 2 million. The internet healthcare business was booming even before the virus outbreak. The number of registered users of Ping An Good Doctor exceeded 300 million last September, implying that one in three Chinese Internet users uses the service. China’s online health-care market may grow to as much as 200 billion yuan ($29 billion) this year, according to Chen Qiaoshan of Analysys, a consultancy in Beijing. Huawei is supporting the Hubei branches of China Mobile and China Unicom to set up the 5G base stations in Huoshenshan Hospital, one of two specialized hospitals for the coronavirus patients in Wuhan.

In the U.S., the first U.S. patient to contract the coronavirus is being treated by a robot doctor in a tiny secured room to reduce the risk of the disease spreading. The patient is isolated in a 20-by-20-foot “isopod” at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington while a doctor sitting outside the isopod operates the futuristic physician in order to avoid coming in contact with the disease. This is in line with the hospital’s protocol prepared in 2015 as a response to the Ebola virus.

AI for early detection and warning

Big data and AI have been used to identify the spread of infectious disease at an early stage, or even before it starts to spread. BlueDot, a Canadian startup, spotted what would come to be known as COVID-19 and flagged it a little after midnight on December 30, nine days before the World Health Organization released its statement alerting people to the emergence of a novel coronavirus. BlueDot uses natural language processing and machine learning to cull data from large numbers of sources, such as statements from official public health organizations, digital media, global airline ticketing data, livestock health reports and population demographics. Their AI platform keeps processing huge volume of information every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, and identified a cluster of “unusual pneumonia” cases around a market in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

The data BlueDot collects and analyses also helped the platform to anticipate where COVID-19 cases would spread next. Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, Phuket, Seoul, and Singapore – these are the list of cities BlueDot identified using global airline ticketing information and other data. In the end, 11 of the cities at the top of their list were the first places to receive COVID-19 cases. The idea of BlueDot came from the experience of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, according to Kamran Khan, founder and CEO of BlueDot. The track record of BlueDot is impressive. It successfully predicted that the Zika virus would spread to Florida in 2016, six months before it actualy happened. It was also able to anticipate that Ebola outbreak in West Africa in early 2014 would leave the region (which eventually reached the U.S. in September/October 2014). BlueDot can also be used for things like meningitis, yellow fever, and anthrax.

While BlueDot serves as an early warning system that is quite useful to improve preparedness against dangerous diseases, there are more ambitious attempt to identify novel viruses before they even make the jump from animals to humans. Scientists estimate that there are about 1.67 million undiscovered viruses in the world. The estimate of how many would be dangerous to people, if we came in contact with them, ranges from 631,000 to 827,000. The Global Virome Project (GVP) intends to develop a genetic and ecological database of the vast majority of viruses in animal populations that have the potential to infect humans and do deep analysis on the ones most likely to be human threats. This gigantic collection effort will enable the development of new vaccines, drugs and other preventative measures before the next outbreak occurs. The global virus data could also be used to train AI algorithms to predict which viruses in animals are more likely to be transferred to humans, allowing for the space for preemptive actions.