The field of robotics is fast becoming a part of everyday life. In the sector of healthcare technologies, it is providing ready solutions; from fighting cancer to providing companionship.

Here we explore how robotics is set to change six aspects of healthcare, ensuring that we live a healthier, safer, and more fulfilled life.

1. Easing the manpower crunch – Robotic nurse

It is no secret that the healthcare industry and nursing in particular is currently facing a massive labour crunch. The Singaporean Ministry of Health has launched the 2020 Healthcare Manpower Plan, to handle the country’s need for an additional 30,000 healthcare workers by 2020 in order to care for its rapidly ageing population.

One solution is Terapio, spearheaded by Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan. It is a robot capable of making hospital rounds, delivering medications and other items, and retrieve medical records. It is not fully autonomous but instead follows a doctor around, serving as an assistant. The reason for its allure is its ability to work alongside staff and that it needs minimal human contact.

Other robots, like Pearl, serve more as a reminder for patients. Some assist patients with getting in and out of wheelchairs and beds, while others serve as night guards. It looks like robot nurses are here to stay – the US National Science Foundation has allocated USD1 million in funding for robotic nurses.

2. Ingestible micro-robots – Safe battery removal

An origami robot that unfolds inside of the stomach may sound like science fiction. But a robot developed by MIT, Tokyo University, and University of Sheffield researchers is designed to remove batteries from the human body. It is originally disguised as a pill, and when its casing dissolves, would unfold itself. The robot would then be able to quickly remove swallowed button batteries or to patch a wound in the stomach lining.

Inside of the body, it is manipulated by magnetic fields; once inside, the robot picks up the battery using another magnet attached to its body. As there are as many as 3,500 button batteries ingested each year, if they are not expelled, these can corrode and release caustic chemicals onto the stomach lining.

Other ingestible robots miniaturised into a pill are able to track vital signs after medication.

3. Ward decontaminant – Antibiotic-resistance fighting robot

With the increased chance of an outbreak of superbugs threatening the safety of patients, hospitals are increasingly looking for robotics that are able to effectively kill all of such superbugs such as the MRSA.

It has been found that these pathogens exhibit vulnerability towards UV-C light at differing wavelengths depending on the organism. Xenex’s Pulsed Xenon lamps take advantage of such vulnerabilities; they produce flashes, separated by milliseconds, of UV-C light across the entire disinfecting spectrum which damage the superbugs.

4. Oncology – Nano-bots against cancer

An eight-member research team from the University of Hong Kong has developed the world’s first nano-bot guided with the assistance of light. The nano-bots would be able to travel via the bloodstream, and is able to remove tumours and halt the growth of cancer cells. Measuring just two to three millimetres, it is injected into the body; once inside, they travel with the assistance of light – and even a table lamp can guide these nano-bots.

Prior robots that are capable of traversing our human body are guided by a magnetic field, such as the above example. Light was chosen due to its variances in colour, direction and focal points than a magnetic field, enabling greater precision over its control.

5. Research tool – Robotic chain smoker

Wyss Institute scientists from Harvard University have invented a machine that vapes and smokes cigarettes to facilitate the analysis of the detrimental effects of smoking without human involvement. The machine consists of a rubber block of living lung cells, in turn connected to a respirator designed to mimic how humans smoke. The machine smokes ten cigarettes at one go, and the smoke travels towards the bronchiolar lung cells.

The machine provides a pre-clinical trial setting, and enables standardisation; a human would smoke at irregular timing, and the quantity might vary. In addition, their family background, genetics, and reaction towards smoke might differ between smokers.

6. Providing companionship – Buddy and others

With an increasingly aging population worldwide, many elderly are in need of companionship. For those suffering from dementia, requiring reminders on their daily activities, the robots can do so too. There has been an avalanche of such innovations, such Buddy by Blue Frog Robotics.

Buddy is equipped with the latest artificial intelligence technology, capable of recognising faces and objects, tracking them, track important events and appointments, and store groceries lists. Able to move around, with children, Buddy can even play hide and seek, read bedtime stories, and assist with homework. It can also help the elderly or children stay connected with loved ones by making video calls. MIMS

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