Over 66 different kinds of “social” robots have been piloted in hospitals, health centers, airports, office buildings, and other public and private spaces in response to the pandemic, according to a study from researchers at Pompeu Fabra University. Their survey of 195 robot deployments across 35 countries including China, the U.S., Thailand, and Hong Kong found “clear expansion” in the use of robots that perform roles directly addressing the need for distancing and physical isolation, like those that support hospital staff and deliver food.

It’s not surprising the worsening COVID-19 health crisis is hastening the adoption of certain robots and drones. They require disinfection but promise to minimize the risk of spreading disease, which is critical in health care settings. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that health care workers represent over 25% of diagnosed COVID-19 cases in some parts of the world.

“Physical distancing and isolation measures adopted worldwide to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic provide an unprecedented opportunity for social robots to be implemented in real settings,” the researchers wrote. “The critical role that robots could play in public health during disaster situations has long been highlighted. Noticeably, applying physical distancing is not always a valid option and, when it cannot be guaranteed, it can lead to devastating consequences.”

The coauthors define social robots as those capable of communicating with and directing social cues toward humans — in other words, robots that interact with humans. They examine each through the lens of roles the robots are fulfilling during the pandemic:

  • Robots as liaisons in tasks that require human-human interaction
  • Robots as safeguards that minimize infection risk
  • Robots as well-being coaches that entertain and guide quarantined patients through therapy

To identify pandemic-related deployments, the researchers canvassed over 1,000 sources between March and June including media outlets, tech blogs, robot developers and suppliers’ websites and social media accounts, research papers and reports, case studies, and robotics organization publications. They created a database with all the deployments that met a set of inclusion criteria, and they classified each according to the robots’ names, capabilities, and physical environments.

Hospitals led the list of deployments by volume with 104 in total, followed by nursing homes (24), transportation (13), schools and universities (9), airports (8), hotels (8), parks and streets (8), restaurants (6), office buildings (5), shopping malls (5), stores (3), and highway checkpoints (1). In terms of geography, China had the highest concentration with 56 deployments, followed by the U.S. (34), Thailand (20), Belgium (14), Hong Kong (13), India (10), and the Netherlands (5).

Forty-two of the 195 deployments worldwide employed robots for “reception-related” tasks like patient or customer registration, contactless check-ins and check-outs, and appointment booking. Between 18 and 49 deployments targeted COVID-19 prediagnostic and patient monitoring functions. One of the most common applications was telepresence with 83 deployments, mostly as a way for patients and residents in nursing homes to keep in touch with family members.

“Social robots are developing a particularly outstanding role in hospitals supporting staff, where they contribute to reduce the workload and ensure the safety of the healthcare personnel performing functions associated with receptionist, pre-diagnosis, food delivery, telepresence, or monitoring, among others,” the researchers noted. “They have also gained acceptance as social companions to palliate the effects of isolation, especially in nursing homes.”

Ninety-four deployments and 36 types of robots had to do with delivery — numbers which appear to be growing. Amazon, KiwiBot, Starship Technologies, Nuro, and Postmates continue to ferry food to customers autonomously during the pandemic, as does startup Refraction AI and Moscow-based tech giant Yandex. A greater number of deployments — 118 — were dedicated to “ensuring risk-free environments,” for example by providing safety advice, enforcing protective measures, surveilling and patrolling, and disinfecting. And 63 deployments sought to promote physical and psychological well-being in “companion,” entertainment, or medical guidance capacities.

The researchers assert the deployments have already led to greater acceptance of robots as a whole. However, they characterize their potential to act as well-being coaches as “underdeveloped” compared with other use cases, chiefly because some of the robots they identified haven’t been adapted to pandemic-related challenges.

“An aspect to highlight is that most functions that we identified were technically available before the pandemic. But the relevance of these functions is now boosted due to the needs brought by the sanitary crisis and are now specifically adapted to a situation that demands physical distancing and isolation,” the coauthors wrote. “There is clear room for improvement in the field of social robots that can provide aid to support more effectively patients under isolation during the pandemic.”