The robot could help test patients for coronavirus and help treat them while at the hospital. (Image Credit: Tsinghua University)


Engineers from Tsinghua University in China have developed a robot that treats and tests patients who have been infected with the COVID-19 virus. The remote-controlled, wheeled robot is capable of performing ultrasound scans, taking mouth swabs, and listening to patients' organs using a robot stethoscope.


These tasks are usually administrated by doctors in a face-to-face setting, of course. However, this robot, which is rigged with cameras, will allow healthcare workers to stay away from highly contagious areas. Instead, they could just as easily control the robot and monitor the patient in a different city.


"Doctors are all very brave," said Tsinghua University Professor Zheng Gangtie, the robot's chief designer. "But this virus is just too contagious ... We can use robots to perform the most dangerous tasks."


Professor Zheng said the idea first came to him during the Chinese Lunar New Year, around the time when Wuhan had been put in lockdown, and the number of cases and deaths rose rapidly. He said that on the first Lunar New Year day, Doug Jiahong, executive president at Beijing's Tsinghua Changgung Hospital, told him that the biggest issue was the frontline workers getting infected from the virus.


He then gathered a team and began converting two mechanized robotic arms using the same technology typically used in lunar explorers and space stations. The robots were almost fully autonomous, and they were even capable of disinfecting themselves after getting in contact with an infected patient.

"But the feedback from doctors was that it would be better for there to be less automation, as a personal presence would comfort and calm the patient," he said.


The team has two robots that have already been tested by healthcare workers at hospitals in Beijing. One of the robots is currently at the team's lab at the university, and the other one is at the Wuhan Union Hospital, where doctors have recently started training to use it. If the trials go well, the robot could be put to use on coronavirus patients in Wuhan. It would be accompanied by a nurse or other staff member.


Zheng has also stated he would like to develop more robots but is not able to because the university ran out of funding. They typically cost $72,000 each to build. He does not plan on commercializing his robot design, but he also hopes a company would be willing to handle the task.


China has deployed tens of thousands of healthcare workers to the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. Over 3,000 medical workers became infected by the end of February, including Li Wenliang.


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