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Right now, around the world, autonomous robots are helping businesses adhere to social distancing measures while protecting their staff from the risks of infection, from picking goods in warehouses to cleaning shop floors.
In large supermarkets like Walmart and Kroger, as well as many smaller grocery and retail outlets, these machines are taking the strain off people by cleaning floors and pulling heavy inventory carts, allowing staff to get on with more important jobs like disinfecting high-contact surfaces and stocking shelves.
Brain Corp, a company that “creates intelligent, autonomous navigation systems for everyday machines" has deployed more than 10,000 “autonomous mobile robots" (AMRs) across the USA, and they're providing 8,000 hours of work every day.
The idea is pretty simple: manually-operated machines like floor cleaners are turned into self-driving units using BrainCorp's “BrainOS" software. “The machines leverage a “teach and repeat" methodology," says Erik Bratt, the company's senior director of brand, content and communications. “This means a human operator trains the robots on which cleaning routes to take. They manually drive the routes once, so that the robots can learn it and then repeat that route autonomously moving forward".
The robots use cameras, advanced LIDAR sensors and AI technology to scan and perceive the environment they're in in 2D and 3D to avoid obstacles and people, without the need for complex infrastructure changes or the use of GPS, which can be unreliable indoors.
“The retail industry has been an early adopter and has been looking into automation long before this pandemic," adds Erik. “However, COVID-19 certainly makes the need for these autonomous cleaning robots more prevalent and accelerates this trend as the robots are perfectly suited to solve many of the problems essential businesses like retailers are experiencing now."
Since the beginning of the outbreak, BrainCorp has seen demand rise by 13.6% year-on-year for its robotics software (comparing March 2019 with March 2020). According to the company, its autonomous floor care robots will complete more than 250,000 hours over the next 30 days that would otherwise have been done by an essential worker.
It's not the only examples of robots being used during the pandemic. In Wuhan, China, a new hospital ward has opened that's staffed only by robots. These humanoid machines deliver food, drinks and medicines to patients, as well as clean the ward, in a bid to protect medical workers. The robots, created by Chinese company CloudMinds, navigate using a cloud-based map and 5G connectivity.
The company's CEO, Bill Huang, told CNBC that the robotic platform can also monitor patient's health and relay that to medical staff remotely. He said: “this AI platform, synced with smart bracelets and rings worn by patients, was able to monitor patient vital signs (including temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen levels), allowing doctors and nurses outside the facility to monitor all patient vital information remotely on one interface."
Robots are also being used to make deliveries to people's homes. From Beijing to the town of Milton Keynes in the UK, they're navigating the streets delivering essential goods and medicines to house-bound citizens, using GPS, cameras and radar to find their way around. Are these autonomous machines a glimpse into the future of hyper-local delivery, powered by location technology?
As Erik from BrainCorp puts it: “As we've seen in the last few weeks, humans need help during a crisis like this one, and autonomous mobile robots have the ability to support them in meaningful ways."