Robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) have important roles to play in battling pandemics and contagion. That’s according to UK-RAS, the network within the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that promotes robotics research.

This is because robots and autonomous systems can often go where humans cannot, or can work remotely, and sometimes operate without human intervention.

The organisation has announced the winners of its inaugural Medical Robotics for Contagious Diseases Challenge 2020. This recognises outstanding innovation in developing robotic solutions to help tackle COVID-19 and future pandemics.

The challenge was conducted online and attracted 21 entries from 13 countries: Bangladesh, China, Colombia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Uganda, the US, and the UK.

Three winners and runners-up in each category were unveiled at a virtual ceremony earlier this month, with each of the winning teams receiving £5,000 donated by The Wellcome Trust and specialist provider Intuitive Surgical.

According to UK-RAS, they were chosen from a shortlist of 17 exceptional submissions by an international judging panel.

The winners are:

Best Application

UVC-PURGE: ‘A Semi-autonomous Virus Disinfection Robot’, developed by the Military Institute of Science & Technology (MIST).

Runner Up: ‘Teleoperated Wheelchair with Isolation Hood’, by a team at Amrita Viswa Vidyapeetham (Amrita University).

 Best Innovation

‘Telerobotics for Remote Control of Medical Equipment in Contagious Environments’, by a team from Johns Hopkins University.

Runner Up: ‘Towards Affordable Soft Robotic Bronchoscopy’ by a team at Imperial College London and Institut Teknologi Bandung.

 Best Design

‘An Intelligent Robotic System for Automated Precision Disinfection in Public Spaces’, from a team at Leeds University.
Runner Up: ‘A Master-Slave Robotic System for both Endotracheal Intubation and Bronchoscopy for the Treatment of COVID-19’, from a team at China’s Tianjin University.

Chair of the UK-RAS network, Professor Robert Richardson, said, “The engagement of the world’s leading robotics researchers with this challenge has been nothing short of incredible, and the quality of the entries we received really underscores the vital contribution that is being made by robotics platforms during this pandemic in delivering solutions for the global community.

“The entire UK-RAS team and our superb judging panel offer our congratulations to the winners, the runners-up, and all the teams who took part in this unique competition, which is going to provide an important launchpad for pandemic response innovations as we look beyond the immediate crisis to addressing future public health challenges.”

The work of UK-RAS

Most people are familiar with UK-RAS through UK Robotics Week, which it organises every year in an effort to engage researchers, policymakers, funders, commercial partners, and the public – including school children – in the technology.

Unsurprisingly, the event is being revamped this year. UK-RAS plans to launch a three-month Robotics Summer Showcase to run from May to July, with events aimed at attracting academics, industry, and other stakeholders in the robotics community.

Within that, a seven-day UK Robotics Festival will run from 19-25 June, with a focus on public-facing events. With the pandemic still ongoing, many of these events are likely to remain virtual.

As previously reported, swarms of unmanned, AI-controlled autonomous drones could help battle the coronavirus and respond to similar health crises, at least according to one innovator in the sector.

Kumardev Chatterjee is founder and CEO of startup Unmanned Life, which deploys AI to control teams of aerial and ground-based robots and enable them to work collaboratively.

Speaking at a virtual Westminster eForum conference on drones last year, he explained how Unmanned Life had been working on a project to aid in the government’s coronavirus response.

“We already have a programme where we are using autonomous drones for the disinfection of outdoor and indoor spaces,” he said.