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Virus Pushes Robots to the Frontlines of Hospitals

Kari Lindberg

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The deadly coronavirus outbreak, which has pushed the Chinese medical community into overdrive, has also prompted the country’s hospitals to more quickly adopt robots as medical assistants.

Telepresence bots that allow remote video communication, patient health monitoring and safe delivery of medical goods are growing in number on hospital floors in urban China. They’re now acting as a safe go-between that helps curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Keenon Robotics Co., a Shanghai-based company, deployed 16 robots of a model nicknamed “little peanut” to a hospital in Hangzhou after a group of Wuhan travelers to Singapore were held in quarantine. Siasun Robot and Automation Co. donated seven medical robots and 14 catering service robots to the Shenyang Red Cross to help hospitals combat the virus on Wednesday, according to a media release on the company’s website. Keenon and Siasun didn’t reply immediately to requests for comment. JD.com Inc. is testing the use of autonomous delivery robots in Wuhan, the company said in a statement. Local media has also reported robots being used in hospitals in the city as well as in Guangzhou, Jiangxi, Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus has left provincial hospitals straining to cope and helped accelerate the embrace of robots as one solution, turning the gadgets into medical assistants. These bots join China’s tech-heavy response to the coronavirus outbreak, which also includes airborne drones and work-from-home apps. The jury remains out on how effective these coping tactics will be.

China’s rapid buildout of fifth-generation wireless networking in areas around urban hospitals has also seen a rise in 5G-powered medical robots -- equipped with cameras that allow remote video communication and patient monitoring. These are in contrast to robots like little peanut, whose primary function is to make indoor deliveries.

“The technology of robots used in Chinese hospitals isn’t high, but what this virus is also highlighting -- and it could be the next stage of Chinese robots -- is the use of medical robot deployment,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Nikkie Lu.

China Mobile Ltd. donated one 5G robot each to both Wuhan Union Hospital and Tongji Tianyou Hospital this week, according to a report by ThePaper.cn. Riding the 5G network, these assistant bots carry a disinfectant tank on board and will be used to safely clean hospital areas along a predetermined route, reducing the risk to medical personnel.

Zhejiang People’s Hospital used a 5G robot to diagnose its first coronavirus patient on Sunday, according to a report by the Hangzhou news center run by the State Council Information Office. Beijing Jishuitan Hospital performed remote surgery on a patient in Shandong province via China Telecom Corp.’s 5G network last June.

While it may take patients a moment or two to get over the shock of being helped by a robot rather than a medical professional, bots have already permeated a growing number of sectors in Chinese society including nursing homes, restaurants, warehouses, banks and over 200 kindergartens.

Financial services company Huachuang Securities Co. believes even more robots are in China’s immediate future. Pointing to National Bureau of Statistics data suggesting that domestic production of industrial robots increased by 15.3% in the month of December, they predict similarly fast growth in the current quarter, according to a report published by Finance Sina.

The increased quantity of robots deployed to combat the coronavirus has helped accelerate China’s path to the goal it had already set for itself. The country wants to become one of the world’s top 10 most intensively automated nations by the end of this year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kari Lindberg in Hong Kong at klindberg13@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net, Vlad Savov, Colum Murphy

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