By Tim Hornyak

After a passenger infected with the novel coronavirus boarded the Diamond Princess cruise ship in January, the virus quickly spread, eventually infecting at least 712 and killing seven. Critics labeled the ship quarantined in Yokohama a floating petri dish, and at least one Japanese expert attributed the explosion of cases to food trays passed out by infected crew. Could robots have made a difference?

As countries around the world grapple with COVID-19, front line medical workers are deploying robots, telemedicine and other technologies to help contain the pandemic. China and Spain have used drones to monitor people during lockdown campaigns, while South Korea has deployed them to help disinfect areas in Daegu, an epidemic hotspot. Antwork, a group company of Japanese industrial drone maker Terra Drone, flew medical samples and quarantine materials in China’s Xinchang in February during the height of the epidemic.

Earlier this month, a field hospital staffed by robots opened in the Hongshan Sports Center in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began. Dubbed the Smart Field Hospital, the facility is a project involving Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, China Mobile and CloudMinds, a maker of cloud robotics systems based in China and the U.S. The Smart Field Hospital is a trial aimed at relieving exhausted health-care workers even as the outbreak in China slowed in recent weeks.

All medical services in the facility were carried out by robots and other IoT devices. Patients entering were screened by connected 5G thermometers to alert staff for anyone feverish. Patients wore smart bracelets and rings that synced with CloudMinds’ AI platform so their vital signs, including temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen levels, could be monitored. Doctors and nurses also wore the devices to catch any early signs of infection.

Meanwhile, other robots provided food, drinks and medicine to patients, as well as information and entertainment through dancing, and still other autonomous droids sprayed disinfectant and cleaned the floors.

The field hospital is one of several in Wuhan designed to accommodate some 20,000 patients if regular hospitals are overburdened. The facility and its robots are now on standby in case there’s a resurgence in cases, according to CloudMinds.

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