Robots take control in new “low-touch” economy … Esben Østergaard creates world’s first fully-automated Covid-19 swab-testing robot in Odense, Denmark

May 29, 2020

At the age of 4, Esben Østergaard built his first Lego robot. Four decades later the Danish entrepreneur has developed and sold two robotics companies for €560 million and is an early pioneer of the “cobot”, which are nimble and flexible collaborative robots being deployed on factory floors across the world.

At his first company, Universal Robots, he deliberately chose to remain the CTO, rather than take on the CEO role, as he much preferred the excitement of technology to administration. When I interviewed him at the Thinkers50 European Business Forum, held in his home town of Odense, Denmark, he said he was looking forward to stepping back  from everyday business.

“I’m a curious nerd” he confessed. “I was always interested in technology and changing the world. I studied robotics and AI to try to find out if consciousness is related to or separate from intelligence. I think robots can teach us something about what it means to be human since they are kind of mimicking us. They can do much of what we can do physically, sometimes better.”

He described how he now wanted to contribute more to doing good in the world, and how his wife had sat him down on Christmas Eve with a powerpoint presentation describing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She said “Now I have an opportunity to make a real difference” so he set about exploring how robotics could do more for society.

Within three months, the Cover-19 pandemic took hold. Østergaard knew he had to do something, and started exploring how to automate the swab-based virus testing process, as recommended by WHO.  Last week he launched Lifeline Robotics with a team of 10 colleagues from the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), aiming to take their fully-automated “swab robot” from prototype to market in just 4 weeks.

The innovation will be operating in hospitals from later this month. “The robot picks up the swab after the patient has scanned her ID-card, and it then identifies the right points in the patient’s throat through artificial intelligence-based computer vision” he explains. “This means that medical staff are no longer in danger of infection, and can spend their time treating other patients who need more human care.”

The SDU newsletter takes the story further:

“In just four weeks, a team of the best robotics researchers from the University of Southern Denmark has succeeded in developing the world’s first fully automatic throat swab robot, scheduled to swab the first patients for Covid-19 already by late June.

With a 3D printed, specially designed disposable tool, the robot holds a swab and hits the exact spot in the throat from which the sample is to be collected. Subsequently, the robot puts the swab into a glass and screws the lid on to seal the sample. And the researchers have tested the robot.

“I was one of the first to be swabbed by the robot. It went really well. I’m still sitting here”, laughs Professor Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu of SDU Robotics “I was surprised at how softly the robot managed to land the swab at the spot in the throat where it was supposed to hit, so it was a huge success.”

Savarimuthu is in charge of the team of ten researchers who have been working around the clock in the Industry 4.0 Lab at the University of Southern Denmark to develop the prototype as quickly as possible, so that the healthcare staff avoids the risk of infection when carrying out throat swabs. “We have successfully demonstrated the world’s first fully automatic throat swab and delivered a “Proof of concept” of the processes in a robotized throat swab” he says.

Test, test, test says WHO, but at the same time, health professionals are at risk of becoming infected when doing throat swabs on potential corona patients. Therefore, a throat swab robot was also high on the wish list when Savarimuthu, after Covid-19 made its entry in March, spoke with his research colleagues at Odense University Hospital, OUH.

“There are prospects in developing a throat swab robot so that robots can take over the throat swabbing work both in relation to Covid-19, but also in all future viruses” he says. In this, Medical Director Kim Brixen from OUH fully agrees. He has with keen interest been following the development of the robot in the hands of the researchers. He also sees great advantage in the fact that the robot doesn’t get tired and bored of monotonous work.

“Currently, healthcare professionals are carrying out throat swabs for Covid-19; but working conditions can be a challenge. The task entails long working days of monotonous work. At the same time, the employees are in great demand in other functions”, says Brixen, pointing out that the robot can also play a leading role in a new strategy against more common types of flu.

“Large-scale testing is part of our community’s reopening strategy. The robot has great potential for mass screening for Covid-19 in the healthcare sector, but also in connection with border control or at airports. At the same time, we see that regular flu seems to have decreased during the lockdown. This may imply that we may need to rethink our strategy against the flu.”

In the shadow of the coronavirus, the researchers have in record time managed to develop a robot that can safely be entrusted with the swab. Now the robot is ready to move out of the lab.

“We have created the company Lifeline Robotics A/S, where our vision is to get the robot out to do good on the global market as quickly as possible: in airports, in refugee camps or where else it might be needed” says Søren Stig from Lifeline Robotics.

While researchers have been struggling with robotics, power management and vision technology, Stig has been struggling to get investment in place and bring together a strong team aiming at turning the throat swab robot into a commercial success internationally, in line with other proud robotic bigwigs.

Other like co-founder of Universal Robots and investment company REInvest Robotics, Esben Østergaard, and Vækstfonden support the project, and if everything goes according to the ambitious plan, the robot will be swabbing the first patient’s throat in a month. “The Covid-19 pandemic abounds. The ambition is, therefore, that we must get on the market as soon as possible. The plan is that we have a prototype that swabs patients by the end of June, and that the robot is completed and ready for the market this fall when the second Covid-19 wave hits” says Stig, director of Lifeline robotics. “Everyone on the team is working incredibly hard. If our plan holds, we will have achieved in 3-4 months what usually takes three years.”

More robots in healthcare

Meanwhile robots have been doing much more in hospitals – from dispensing drugs to disinfecting rooms.

A cylindrical robot rolls into a treatment room to allow health care workers to remotely take temperatures and measure blood pressure and oxygen saturation from patients hooked up to a ventilator. Another robot that looks like a pair of large fluorescent lights rotated vertically travels throughout a hospital disinfecting with ultraviolet light. Meanwhile a cart-like robot brings food to people quarantined in a 16-story hotel. Outside, quadcopter drones ferry test samples to laboratories and watch for violations of stay-at-home restrictions.

These are just a few of the two dozen ways robots have been used during the COVID-19 pandemic, from health care in and out of hospitals, automation of testing, supporting public safety and public works, to continuing daily work and life.

The lessons they’re teaching for the future are the same lessons learned at previous disasters but quickly forgotten as interest and funding faded. The best robots for a disaster are the robots, like those in these examples, that already exist in the health care and public safety sectors.

Research laboratories and startups are creating new robots, including one designed to allow health care workers to remotely take blood samples and perform mouth swabs. These prototypes are unlikely to make a difference now. However, the robots under development could make a difference in future disasters if momentum for robotics research continues.

In hospitals, doctors and nurses, family members and even receptionists are using robots to interact in real time with patients from a safe distance. Specialized robots are disinfecting rooms and delivering meals or prescriptions, handling the hidden extra work associated with a surge in patients. Delivery robots are transporting infectious samples to laboratories for testing.

One important lesson is that during a disaster robots do not replace people. They either perform tasks that a person could not do or do safely, or take on tasks that free up responders to handle the increased workload.

Outside of hospitals, public works and public safety departments are using robots to spray disinfectant throughout public spaces. Drones are providing thermal imagery to help identify infected citizens and enforce quarantines and social distancing restrictions. Robots are even rolling through crowds, broadcasting public service messages about the virus and social distancing.

At work and home, robots are assisting in surprising ways. Realtors are teleoperating robots to show properties from the safety of their own homes. Workers building a new hospital in China were able work through the night because drones carried lighting. In Japan, students used robots to walk the stage for graduation, and in Cyprus, a person used a drone to walk his dog without violating stay-at-home restrictions.

Robodog on patrol

We have also seen Spot, the robodog, patrolling Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park as part of a pilot trial to promote safe distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Built by Boston Dynamics, the yellow and black robodog will patrol the park during off-peak hours.

Far from barking its orders, Spot politely asks runners and cyclists to stay apart and keep to safe distancing measures. “Let’s keep Singapore healthy,” it said in English as it roamed around.  “For your own safety and for those around you, please stand at least one metre apart. Thank you,” it added, in a softly-spoken female voice.

Boston Dynamics call Spot “a nimble robot that climbs stairs and traverses rough terrain with unprecedented ease, yet is small enough to use indoors. Built to be a rugged and customisable platform, ithas an industry track record in remote operation and autonomous sensing.”

The robot is controlled remotely, reducing the manpower required for park patrols and minimising physical contact among staff members, volunteer safe distancing ambassadors and park visitors. “This lowers the risk of exposure to the virus. Unlike wheeled robots, SPOT works well across different terrains and can navigate obstacles effectively, making it ideal for operation in public parks and gardens,” the authorities said.

Starship delivers your groceries


Starship robots have been delivering shopping to homes in the British town of Milton Keynes while the country remains on lockdown. The robots have been in use for 2 years, but since the lockdown their popularity has surged. More than 100,000 autonomous deliveries have now been made using the robots.

The robots, which come up roughly to an adult’s knee height and look like smooth white plastic boxes mounted on six black wheels, are now a familiar sight in the town. “Lots of them are doing … 80-hour weeks and they don’t have time to go to the local grocery store, so they use our robots for their shopping,” said Henry Harris-Burland, of Starship. “We’re honoured that we can be part of that solution.” The robots have what looks like an antenna, topped with a small red flag to make it easier to spot them as they do their rounds. They are big enough to hold several bags of shopping as well as a pack of bottles.

Nuro, the autonomous vehicle startup founded by two ex-Google engineers, is using its small fleet of road-legal delivery robots to transport medical supplies around two California stadiums that have been converted into treatment facilities for people stricken with Covid-19.

Nuro’s robots are ferrying food, personal protective equipment (PPE), clean linens, and other supplies to workers at two facilities in California: the Event Center in San Mateo and the Sleep Train Arena, which is typically home to the Sacramento Kings.

RoboBarista serves your coffee

A robot barista is being used in a South Korean coffee shop to help maintain social distancing, as the country is successfully transitioning towards what the government calls “distancing in daily life”.

A café in Daejeon, South Korea’s fifth-largest metropolis, is using a robot barista to to handle orders, serve people lattes and make it easier for consumers to stay the recommended six feet apart, according to a report from Reuters.

“Our system needs no input from people from order to delivery, and tables were sparsely arranged to ensure smooth movements of the robots, which fits will with the current ‘untact’ and distancing campaign,” said said Lee Dong-bae, director of research at Vision Semicon, a smart factory solution provider, which developed the robot barista together with a state-run science institute.

The robot can make 60 different types of coffee and serves orders to consumers at their tables. It also senses the clearest routes in the shop for social distancing and communicates that information to other devices. An order of six drinks, processed through a kiosk, took just seven minutes, according to Reuters. Just one human works at the cafe to oversee operations and handle cleaning tasks.

The team from the factory and institute is estimating that they will distribute robots to a minimum of 30 cafes in 2020. Korean manufacturers have been researching ways to automate the café experience for years now, but the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic engendered a surge in demand as companies searched for ways to help keep customers safe from potentially spreading the virus.

Adapting to a low-touch economy

The Board of Innovation has just launched a great report on how to adapt, and thrive in a post-pandemic environment where social distancing and low-touch are the priorities for doing business.

The term Low Touch Economy refers to the way businesses across the globe have been forced to operate in order to succeed as a result of Covid-19. The best way to define its meaning is to list its main characteristics so far:

  • To mitigate health risks, businesses have been forced to adapt to strict policies, including low-touch interactions, limited gatherings, travel restrictions, and so on.
  • Multiple aftershocks in global markets can already be seen. These include shifts in consumer behavior, new regulations, and supply chain disruptions.
  • Medical experts and business leaders assume Covid-19 will directly influence the economy until late 2021.
  • Businesses that survive the Covid-19 pandemic will be those that rely on business models tailored to this new normal while keeping everyone as safe as possible.

The BOI report says that forced isolation and social distancing restrictions, put into place during the Covid-19 health crisis, are expected to have a lasting effect on the world as we know it. Or should I say, once knew it.

In just a few weeks time, society has already undergone a major overhaul in the way companies and citizens live and work. It’s truly impressive how adaptable human-kind can be when it needs to.

But with every passing day and with every bit of extra time added to our confinement, it is becoming harder and harder for us to return to the way things were before.

That’s not to say this new world will be better or worse. Just different. With many isolation-induced behaviors becoming ingrained habits that usher in a whole new set of societal norms. During this period of influx, some businesses will thrive in this change and reach accelerated success, while others will struggle to find their footing in all of the chaos.

No matter what. We are all in store for a period of rapid learning, marked by plenty of ups and downs and economic uncertainty.

The next years will be shaped by the current crisis

Remember back when a handshake was the standard form of greeting? For as long as we can remember, the handshake has been used as a way to convey trust between friends, colleagues and even strangers. But in the midst of the current global health crisis, maybe it’s time to examine a new standard gesture.

The Low Touch Economy will go far beyond shaking up the standard handshake. We can expect that the regulations driving change, will also have both short and long-term impacts on consumers and the economy.

Short and long-term impacts on consumers and the economy by Board of Innovation
Short and long-term impacts on consumers and the economy

And with a vaccine still far off in the horizon, we shouldn’t be getting too comfortable. Buckle up. It’s going to be a rollercoaster ride of trial and error, as our governments try to navigate society to a place where we are ready for recovery.

18-24 months to get back to a new normal. Brace yourself.

The health crisis triggers a series of aftershocks that will affect how consumers and businesses interact with each other. We can expect a series of subsequent waves of measures. The scenario below gives one example of what the next period could look like.

Low Touch Economy aftershocks

Robot sceptics had believed humans would have an edge in those jobs. That could be changing as lockdowns have made humans more comfortable with the idea of connecting remotely. The instructor or adviser on the screen doesn’t need to be a real person, it just needs to think and act like one.

A 2017 report by global consultants McKinsey predicted a third of workers in the US would be replaced by automation and robots by 2030. But events like pandemics have the potential to change all the timelines and experts say it’s really up to humans to decide how they want to integrate this technology in the world.

More from the blog