By Dave Evans and Marco Micheletti
Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, healthcare was in the midst of a shift towards much greater adoption of robotics. From the da Vinci surgical system to futuristic artificial appendages controlled by thought, these machines were increasing in complexity, dexterity, and technology at an exponential rate. But COVID-19 has delivered both an emergency, in which robotics has had much to offer, and a new normal in terms of healthcare experience and expectations. As a result, the role of robotics in healthcare is set to explode.
The urgent tasks at hand
The pandemic created an immediate spike in demand for numerous tasks, many of which robots were able to deliver. Robots are often used for tasks categorized as “the three Ds”: dirty, dull or dangerous. In the pandemic, there were and continue to be several tasks that fall into these categories. Throughout the crisis, robots have been used for surveillance, patient care, sanitization, lab assistance and logistics tasks.
- Aitheon robots have set new standards for automated and safe disinfection and other medical assistance, and even provide a “Remote Doctor Robot” to interact safely with infected patients.
- Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robot Spot is being used on coronavirus social distancing patrol. The robot is also helping screen patients who may have COVID-19 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The robot is able to take vital measurements, like respiration rate and temperature.
- Rwanda has enlisted anti-epidemic robots in its fight against coronavirus. Made by Belgian company Zora Bots, the robots were donated by the United Nations Development Program and can screen a patient’s temperature, identify people not wearing masks and monitor abnormalities in how patients sound or look. They can also deliver medicine and other essentials to the infected.
A new normal for healthcare
There have been many cases of robots stepping up to help with the immediate fight against COVID-19, but this is the tip of the iceberg. The potential for robotics in both clinical and homecare environments is huge, including the numerous tasks they can complete in supporting logistics roles related directly to healthcare. Beyond the three Ds (dirty, dull or dangerous), robots are capable of incredible precision and have the ability to augment the skill of the operator. Robots ultimately deliver the most when they assist or collaborate with, rather than replace, humans.
Moreover, robots continue to grow in their sophistication, and the addition of artificial intelligence and machine learning is quickly increasing their value, as is the number of applications and tasks they can be deployed to perform. Robots that are capable of learning from their human trainers and collaborators have the potential to add even more value.
The whole healthcare robotics industry is at an inflection point, as the sector sees the immediate and future value robotics can deliver, as well as the growing need for tasks to be automated. Robots can bridge gaps created by social distancing protocols, assist with safe sterilization and serve as direct liaisons to contagious patients.
The pandemic has not created this revolution; it has been coming for some time. The global market for robotic surgery systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 16%, reaching $9.7bn by 2023, driven by continued innovation, access to emerging markets, and rising demand. According to Acumen Research and Consulting, the electronic drug delivery systems market size is expected to reach around U.S. $12.1 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 8.9% from forecast period 2019 to 2026. And Fior Markets expects the global home diagnostics market to reach USD 6.53 billion by 2025, up from USD 4.78 Billion in 2017.
This pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of manufacturing processes and of supply chains in just about every industry. That transformation can be seen in the use of robots and in the ways in which they are designed and manufactured, as well as in the business models being utilized to deliver them.
From design and manufacturing, robotics companies are looking for more dynamic solutions that deliver the agility and resilience needed to bring new products and solutions to market quickly, to be able to pivot when demand suddenly changes, and to provide resilience in the next crisis. All this is happening in a world in which the global manufacturing structure, led by low-cost manufacturing in China, is being challenged by legislation and sentiment.
New business models, like robotics-as-a-service, are also gaining traction, as companies explore different ways to deploy robotic solutions. Users are increasingly considering models that put robotics into the operating expense of the business, rather than taking already overstretched capital investment budgets.
Amidst all these challenges and changes, it is abundantly clear that having stepped up during the fight against COVID-19, robotics will again play a pivotal role in economic recovery and will eventually become part of the fabric of healthcare in a so-called “new normal,” or post-pandemic landscape.
Health organizations have a huge opportunity to embrace change, exploring everything that robotics can offer to streamline and improve the delivery of patient care, both in hospitals and in homes. Robotics companies must develop solutions, programs and systems that allow them to innovate and move fast enough to serve the healthcare sector, delivering robust reliable solutions quickly and effectively.
As the co-founder and CEO of Fictiv, Dave Evans has been working to inject agility into manufacturing since 2013. Fictiv offers manufacturing agility and speed through a portfolio of optimized manufacturing processes for hardware companies of all sizes. To date, Fictiv has raised $58M in through Series C from Bill Gates, Intel and Accel. He’s an innovative entrepreneur featured on TechCrunch, Inc., and named on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list..
Marco Micheletti is a leader in managing product development, NPI, manufacturing, automation, and operations teams through highly complex projects. Currently, he serves as Director of Automation at Fresh Consulting where he provides thought leadership and innovative solutions in the high value automated, advanced manufacturing and autonomous vehicle industries.