As the rest of the world battles the ongoing pandemic, a unique spectacle in the form of technological advancements in the field of autonomous vehicles and other applications can be seen gracing the empty streets and even the frontlines of the battle in hospitals. A technology that is immune to the virus and can do almost anything we humans can program it to do, robots, and autonomous technology is a dependable weapon in our arsenal.
While we are far away from having invisible chauffeurs steer our cars during every day commutes, the recent lockdowns and spread of COVID-19 through human contact has seen many companies around the world rise to the occasion with self-driving delivery cars and human contactless deliveries. The empty streets and emergencies have created both a demand and a safe space for self-driving cars to operate without hitches. Robotics and other automation technology companies have also risen to the occasion, developing solutions to combat the spread.
AUTONOMOUS CARS SPRAWLING THE STREETS
In recent times, Chinese self-driving delivery van startup, Neolix has been building and supplying Chinese companies like Alibaba and JD.com with their self-driving products. In the course of a few months, the company saw a 160% increase in orders than it did in the entire year before. Meituan, Beijing based O2O life services company, has also developed and implemented its autonomous delivery vehicles. These vehicles proved their worth in China’s hard-hit neighborhoods by delivering emergency medicine, grocery, and other supplies from vendors. Some remote-controlled vehicles are also being used to disinfect streets in Wuhan, whilst drones are patrolling roads in Spain.
Similar companies around the world are also beginning to offer their services for delivery. Nuro, an American self-driving transport company, recently became the first company to receive a waiver from the US Department of Transportation to operate driverless self-driving vehicles on a test basis to carry out deliveries in certain areas of California. Other companies like Postmates have also developed smaller sized delivery pods to run shorter distances and with smaller loads. Further success will see the company expanding its fleet and operations. Starship Technologies, based in the UK and founded by two Skype co-founders, which has been testing autonomous deliveries since 2015. The company has launched full commercial operations in the town of Milton Keynes to deliver food and small orders from supermarkets to people in lockdown. These companies are working to fill the surge in demand for home deliveries whilst making deliveries safer for workers and people at home.
AN AUTONOMOUS FUTURE?
In 2015 “Lisbon Study” carried out by International Transport Forum showcased the staggering implications of replacing privately owned cars with autonomous shared vehicles in highly urbanized areas. The study – carried out in Lisbon, Portugal – saw that moving completely to shared autonomous vehicles reduced the need for 90% of automobiles in the streets. This would reduce significant urban pollution, high traffic congestion, and the need for parking spaces. All these problems are very significant for Bangladesh, as Dhaka consistently ranks as one of the most congested and polluted cities in the world. Similar studies carried around the world combined with a decreasing trend in automobile ownership from today’s younger generation heralds the demand for self-driving cars.
However, before we can all jump on the self-driving bandwagon, it is important to note that such a future is far from being realized. Carmakers around the world are still testing their self-driving capabilities and it will take a while before artificial intelligence can fully takeover from human hands.
ROBOTS IN OTHER PLACES
Complete autonomy of transportation and delivery has a long way to go, but that is not the case for many robotic and autonomous technologies for other applications. And these applications are seeing their use during the epidemic. Autonomous robots in Chinese hospitals are being commissioned to check temperatures, disinfect visitors, and even cook for doctors and patients. Restaurants in China have also been adopting robot servers to bring more faith in diners. Many robotics and automated technology companies in China are developing different solutions to bring about essential contactless services that are in high demand during this hour.
As robots cannot become infected, they can serve as effective frontline forces at a time when the healthcare workforce is stretched thin and run the risk of contracting the potentially fatal coronavirus. In an editorial published in March by Science Robotics – a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – outlined the prime areas where the application of robotics could play a significant role: disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, patient care, and disease management amongst other things. Robotics could also allow certain socioeconomic operations such as manufacturing to continue amidst the pandemic, the authors argue. The implications are large and should be explored for future reference.
GREATER APPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE PANDEMICS
Autonomous technology has already proved its viability during this pandemic. As technology, machine learning, and artificial intelligence develops, more and more autonomous machines and automated technologies will be available in the market. People will also be more accepting of these technologies in the future, and this pandemic will only help to expedite the acceptance process. As a result, future pandemics will see greater use of such technologies and more robots fighting in the frontlines which could potentially lead to lower risks, lower loss of lives, and perhaps a faster respite from the disease.