They don't wear masks and gloves, they never get tired and they don't risk getting infected by patients. During the pandemic, robot technology has enabled many hospitals to care for patients more safely and, very often, even more efficiently. We have also seen this in some Italian healthcare facilities, such as the now famous robot Tommy, used in the hospital in Varese. This is a tool with vaguely human characteristics, which enables patients to be monitored at the bedside and remotely. It is a mobile computer which can be moved between wards and aisles, and is the first to require the intervention of healthcare staff in the event of any malfunction.
This technology has been of great assistance to doctors and nurses in dealing with the excessive workload during this period, which has been going on for almost a year now. Robots don't get tired; at worst, their batteries run down, but after a fresh top-up of energy, they are up and running again.
In addition, there is the huge financial, environmental and logistical benefit of not having to "dress" Tommy and other robots in personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves and protective gowns. This is, of course, because they are not exposed to infection from patients. This means that robots allow doctors to talk to patients remotely, without putting themselves at risk. This is a form of remote healthcare.
On this point, however, it should be stressed that the relationship between healthcare staff and patients remains at the heart of everything. This relationship is here to stay and there is no way that the growing presence of robot assistants will detract from its importance. If anything, human contact – after all the necessary precautions have been taken – becomes even more important for patients affected by infectious diseases, who have to remain in quarantine, isolated for several days.
Even for robots which roam between hospital departments, a basic principle of technology still applies: it is a tool available to practitioners who must use it to speed up, simplify, multiply and expand their options, but is not designed to replace the body and mind of a human being.
This is obviously true in every context. And increasingly so in areas involving tasks which require creativity, emotional intelligence, decision-making and interpretative skills, and flexibility.
Robots like Canvas or HadrianX used in the construction industry, or Tommy in the healthcare sector, are the best example of what is meant by robotic integration in the workplace.
But there are many other areas where the development of increasingly sophisticated robots is resulting in working standards being revamped. One example of this is the construction sector. While automation of the construction sector using robotics is still seen as a slow process, it is probably an inevitable development. This is a market sector which is not particularly well-disposed to change, making it slightly conservative in this respect. But it is one of those areas where there are a number of tasks which can be – and already partially are – automated.
Robots could be entrusted with the most repetitive and dangerous tasks, allowing workers to avoid environments where they are exposed to a high risk of accidents. It is a win-win solution where work safety is increased, while keeping productivity levels constant or perhaps even pushing them upwards.
There is a wide variety of different examples of applications supported by new technologies on construction sites. Drones are already widely used, which are not directly involved in carrying out the tasks but facilitate aerial surveys, carry out surveillance of construction sites and, in some cases, also transport materials. Above all, they offer significant benefits in the design phase, with the option of monitoring via an aerial view both the intervention site and the progress of the work.
Other robots, on the other hand, are directly involved in carrying out the work, as in the case of HadrianX. This is a bricklaying robot manufactured by the Australian company Fastbrick Robotics. It comprises a huge maximum-precision mechanical arm, capable of laying about 1,000 bricks in an hour. It offers the option to install from time to time on its software a 3D map of the construction site, then all you need to do is just provide it with the material and the heaviest work will be carried out. According to its manufacturers, Hadrian can build a complete house covering an area of 180 square metres, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, in three days.
It's obviously a very expensive undertaking, with it still being an exclusive product – Fastbrick Robotics has invested 10 years of research and about six million dollars – but it clearly signals that technological progress is bound to break into an industry where robots can take on very heavy work for humans.
Another interesting project is run by the Californian company Canvas. The San Francisco-based company has developed a real gem of a robot, which uses artificial intelligence to plaster walls. The Canvas robot has already been used on several construction sites, including for the San Francisco International Airport project. This is a machine which is slightly bigger than a kitchen oven, equipped with a laser scanner and a robotic arm. When the robot enters a room, it scans the walls, its sensor assesses those not yet plastered and it then gets to work. And the beauty of this is that it doesn't stop for a coffee or lunch break.
Of course, it needs human input to launch it and get its operations up and running. But this is exactly what is meant by robotic integration in action in the workplace. Robots like Canvas or HadrianX, or even Tommy in the healthcare industry, provide the best possible support for human labour, or at least that's what they should be able to do.