As UK Robotics Week 2020 kicks off, Professor Robert Richardson, Chair of EPSRC UK-RAS Network reflects on how the pandemic has demonstrated the key role that robots can play in helping us deal with unexpected events.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an unprecedented galvanising of the global scientific and technology community, who are coming together to rapidly develop and deploy innovative technological solutions to address the multi-faceted challenges posed by the current health crisis.
As a result, what we are seeing now are compelling examples of specific tasks that robots are able to perform effectively today, including individual robots being used to disinfect spaces, transport medical supplies and food around hospitals, and so on. We’ve even seen the use of walking robots during this pandemic, as shown in the recent video footage of a robotic dog encouraging social distancing in a park in Singapore. These applications are helping us to explore what robotics could do – and should do – in the future to address crises of this magnitude.
Robotics and autonomous systems today have an incredibly important role to play across many sectors including, crucially, in resilience and how we can prepare for and cope with unexpected events. A key challenge for the future – and a major focus of current research – is the ability to build adaptable, multi-task robotics, not just robots capable of fulfilling a single task. The capability to quickly change and adapt robotics systems to efficiently carry out new roles will form an increasingly vital part of our response to major crises – for example, quickly re-deploying robots designed for tasks such as cleaning and repairing roads for pandemic mitigation strategies such as search-and-rescue, disinfection of public spaces, and removing viral risk from the environment. Once we have the fundamental ecosystem in place, we can change how these technologies work for us, delivering robots that have multiple functions and re-use capabilities. The effective deployment of robotics technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us what is possible and will undoubtedly accelerate robotics innovation and development.