Throat-picking robots will ease the burden on doctors

Testing for COVID-19 has normally allowed clinicians dressed in medical protective gear to work for hours. But sample collection is moving closer to full automation with the development of another robot.

A team from Shanghai University has made a robot that obtains a nucleic acid sample with a throat swab in 22 seconds.

The device, with a robotic arm and automated processing, can collect swabs, scan codes on test tubes, disinfect the device and perform other procedures in the testing process.

People taking the test can scan a QR code to enroll in the system, then follow the voice prompts as the robot arm precisely swabs its throat, deposits the swab into a glass tube and seals it.

Miao Zhonghua, deputy director of Shanghai University’s School of Mechatronics and Automation Engineering and head of the robot project, said the idea to create the device was born during the latest wave of COVID. -19 in the city, when the campus was under closed-loop management.

“Clinicians performed throat swab and swab services on campus, but during the most challenging time in April, when demand for the service increased across the city, the team recognized the heavy workload for doctors,” Miao said.

“This motivated our team to explore the use of automated collection methods on campus to ease the burden on clinicians,” he said.

Shanghai has expanded its COVID-19 control by setting up nucleic acid sampling sites across the city for the convenience of residents in need.

More than 15,000 sample sites are scattered across the city, according to city data, near neighborhoods, business districts, schools and other public spaces.

Under these circumstances, automated sampling machines will save local medical resources and reduce the risk exposure of medical workers to the virus, Miao said.

“The precision of the procedure is guaranteed by the technologies used, such as the standardized algorithm, visual positioning and 3D modeling of the human mouth, thus avoiding the uncertainty caused by doctors who are at different levels in their profession” , Miao said.

The movement of the robotic arm is limited by settings and the device will stop moving if the infrared system detects that the arm would otherwise extend outside the designated areas, he said.

“It’s also important that the robot performs each sample without pressing too hard, which is achieved by sensors at the edge of the robotic arm that control the power,” he said.

An online management platform linked to the machine monitors operating conditions, medical equipment storage and emergency alerts.

“Further experiments and research will be conducted to improve accuracy and stability, to find the right movement for each groove. We will cooperate with local medical institutions for future commercialization,” Miao said.

Research on the application of the technology to sample collection has been underway in Chinese universities since 2020.

A team from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, for example, launched a throat sample collection robot two years ago.

By June, the device had performed more than 500 tests at Baoan District People’s Hospital in Shenzhen and other hospitals, according to the university’s website.

The technology has also been the subject of research at the Tsingke Research Institute in Shandong Province and a team from Tsinghua University for two years. The throat-picking robot created by the two institutions went into mass production in June. According to Lyu Chunzhe, director of the Tsingke Research Institute, it takes no more than 30 seconds to collect samples per person and can work in environments from 0 C to 45 C.

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