How Singapore used robots to test Covid-19 lab samples

By Shirley Tay

Dr David Low, Executive Director of the Robotics Horizontal Technology Programme Office at A*STAR, discusses the future of robots in the nation.

In the early 1950s, self-taught inventor George Charles Devol developed a mechanical arm that could carry out repetitive tasks, such as lifting and grasping objects.

Fast forward to today, leapfrogs in technology have made robots a huge part of our everyday lives. They have been used to pick fruits, patrol neighbourhoods, pack drugs, and even increase Singapore’s Covid-19 testing capacity.

Dr David Low, Executive Director of the Robotics Horizontal Technology Programme Office at A*STAR, shares how the agency deployed robots to automate the testing of Covid-19 lab samples.

Speed up testing of samples

At the peak of Covid-19, there was an urgent need to expand Singapore’s Covid-19 testing capacity, says Low. But lab testing involves laborious steps like uncapping tubes and pipetting. Lab operators also work in potentially hazardous environments.

To address these challenges, A*STAR developed a robotics system to automate the handling and testing of samples. It helped to improve the accuracy and consistency of testing, and freed up manpower for higher-value tasks, Low says.

The system, known as Rapid Automated Volume Enhancer (RAVE), can process close to 4,000 samples a day when used in combination with RESOLUTE 2.0 tests, 4 times the usual throughput from RT-PCR testing.
Rapid Automated Volume Enhancer (RAVE). Image by A*STAR

A*STAR’s has collaborated with Advanced MedTech Holdings to deploy the system in more than 20 units in local laboratories. The company plans to make the system available regionally and globally, he says.

Covid-19 has “expanded the role of robotics beyond a productivity enabler to ensure safety and resiliency in a low-touch environment,” Low says. “Activities that would unnecessarily expose human workers to potentially dangerous environments should be taken up by robots where possible.”

Changing the nature of jobs

There is “strong potential” for service robots to be deployed in labour-intensive sectors like construction, healthcare, and logistics, says Low. Countries across the world have turned to robots to increase productivity and reduce reliance on manpower.

Japan has used teddy bear-like robots to lift elderly into their beds or wheelchairs, and help them stand up. The robot is specially designed to be gentler so it doesn’t injure the seniors, and its friendly appearance makes them feel more at ease.

In South Africa, robot pharmacists are deployed to give out HIV medication to patients - saving them hours of waiting time at hospitals and clinics. The robots will not be identified as HIV-related to prevent any social stigma.

South Korea, on the other hand, is building robots to rescue people from fires that are too dangerous for humans to enter. One will be dropped by a drone at rescue sites to search for people, while the other will punch holes through walls to make way for rescuers.

While robots will inevitably change the nature of different jobs, robots and humans will work together in many more areas than before, he says.

The ability to engage and instruct robots will be essential “in the same way that we are expected to be able to use computers in our jobs today”. Employees will take up more supervisory roles in maintaining the robot fleets, for example.

“The greatest threat to employment is not from robots, but from the inability to remain competitive.”

Collaborations are key

Current robots are limited in their ability to automate different tasks “on the fly”, Low says. A*STAR is developing software and hardware to enhance their abilities to adapt to variations in their tasks.

As systems grow more complicated, collaborations will be key in enhancing Singapore’s robotics capabilities, he says.

A*STAR works with enterprises to determine how much of their business operations should be automated. If a commercial solution does not exist, the agency can collaborate with the company through new R&D initiatives.

The agency also works with the industry to re-skill workers in robot programming and applications, Low says. That will help companies make a smooth transition to robot automation.

The world has seen robots that patrol neighbourhoods to ones that automate Covid-19 testing - but its full potential is yet to come. A*STAR’s efforts to enhance Singapore’s robotics capabilities will be crucial in helping the nation be resilient to future challenges.