With industries and whole economies grappling with how to reopen safely, automation offers valuable assistance to human workers.


Investments in robotics and automation have been increasing exponentially over the past decades, reaching an estimated $16.5 billion in 2019—well before the coronavirus shut down major industries. While in the past, the rise of automation has been blamed as the end of employment for many, new robots are being strategically used to make our lives safer, allowing humans to be redeployed to services that require a (socially distant) human touch.

Robo-workers are being used around the world to help healthcare and other staff do their jobs in more sanitary environments. In the UK, robots from the Self Repairing Cities project are now being trialled as street cleaners helping to disinfect the Leeds city center by spraying disinfectant liquid on high-touch areas like benches. By using robots to disinfect these areas first, human sanitation workers are less likely to be exposed to the virus. Heathrow Airport is taking a similar approach, employing robots to kill viruses on surfaces in bathrooms and elevators with ultraviolet light.

To help protect hospital staff from potentially infected patients during check in, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) donated five epidemic-fighting Zora robots to the Kanyinya treatment center in Kenya’s capital city, Kigali in May. The robots can mass screen coronavirus patients by taking their temperature or monitoring coughs for up to 150 people a minute while also keeping patient records, freeing up nursing staff for more involved work.

However, as COVID-19 is an airborne virus, social distancing is also crucial to prevent spread; which is why, in May, Singapore tested the use of Spot, Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, to keep residents a safe distance apart in the city’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Spot was able to play a pre-recorded message reminding people to maintain their distance while also keeping count of park visitors, reporting crowd numbers to authorities. The idea is to expand use in other parks around the city.

As people remain sheltered in their homes, delivery has become even more important as a way to get essential and nonessential items. Although contactless delivery is offered by companies from Dominos to Parcel2Go, human drivers still bring the packages (or pizza!) to the door. Now new mechanical helpers can remove this last bit of contact.


An article by Sarah Tilley for Wunderman Thompson

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