A robot collects a throat swab to test for COVID-19 at the World Robot Conference 2022 in Beijing on Aug 18. (CHEN XIAOGEN/FOR CHINA DAILY)
Amid the sweltering heat waves that have roasted southern China for days, it's a tough challenge for medical staff wearing heavy protective suits to collect throat swabs at COVID-19 testing sites.
Now, a robot that has been jointly developed by Tsinghua University and Chinese biotech company Bioteke Corp could help relieve the medical workers from the scorching heat.
The robot, which looks like a vending machine, can collect throat swabs, process samples, produce results and upload the results in just 45 minutes, without the involvement of a laboratory or any human intervention, its developer said.
This latest innovation is part of a broader push by Chinese companies and research institutes to constantly experiment with the latest technologies in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and it also showcases the progress China has made in the robotics industry, experts said.
Sun Fuchun, a professor of robotics at Tsinghua University, who headed the research and development of the robot, said that it is a "one-stop machine for COVID-19 testing", which differentiates it from robots that can only collect samples.
"Our robot, which has a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test machine in it, can process samples from up to 960 people at a time," said Sun, who is also vice-president of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence, a Beijing-based industry association.
The robot contains different modules for sampling, extraction, purification, detection and result analysis, and also has information management capabilities.
"We aim to shorten the whole process from 45 minutes to 30 minutes in the next-generation robot," Sun said, adding that its robotic claw is tailor-made to ensure that it moves gently while taking oral swab samples.
Lu Chuanying, director of the Research Center for International Cyberspace Governance, which is part of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said that Chinese universities and companies are showcasing remarkable speed in developing the latest technologies to assist the fight against the virus.
He added that their ability to come up with practical solutions to specific problems reflects their technological prowess.
The market volume of China's nucleic acid testing sector is expected to reach 14.6 billion yuan ($2.13 billion) in 2022, up from 13.2 billion yuan last year, according to Shenzhen-based research company Askci Corp.
Eyeing this market, Siasun Robot &Automation Co, one of China's largest robotics companies, and a robotics unit of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp have also developed robots that can stand in for on-site staff to collect oral swab samples. The samples are then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Currently, the robots from Tsinghua University and Bioteke are being tested in hospitals such as Beijing Tsinghua Changgung Hospital to help relieve the burden on medical staff.
Zhou Zhitu, general manager of Bioteke, said nearly 20 million yuan has been invested in the research and development of the robots.
"The cost of our robots is almost half that of COVID-19 test robots adapted from foreign industrial robotic arms," Zhou said, adding that they could be especially useful in airports, train stations and other locations requiring instant COVID-19 test results, and could facilitate the revival of cross-border travel.