One of the few legitimate reasons to be hesitant about getting vaccinated is a fear of needles. Companies like Pfizer are working on pill forms of their Covid-19 vaccines as alternatives, but a new robot could also help make the vaccination procedure less intimidating as it performs injections all by itself and without the jab of a needle.
Developed by Cobionix, an autonomous robotics company that was founded at the Canadian University of Waterloo, Cobi is pitched as an autonomous and versatile robotics platform that can be configured and tailored for countless tasks which it can perform without the need for human intervention or supervision, which is an approach to robotics that has been gaining popularity over the years.
Typically, robots are designed and programmed for very specific tasks, such as welding frames on a vehicle in a car factory. In the long run, a purpose-built robot can be more affordable than a human employee, and take over tasks that are potentially dangerous for people to perform, but the initial costs are extravagant, which has meant they haven’t been a good fit for small businesses who can’t afford the upfront costs. Cobi, by comparison, is designed and built with extreme flexibility in mind, and simply needs software updates and minor re-tooling to change jobs. It allows the robot to be built en masse, which helps reduce the price tag, and to demonstrate just how flexible it can be, its creators have demonstrated it delivering vaccinations.
The only thing scarier than a trained medical professional jabbing a hypodermic needle deep into your arm is an unfeeling robot with no bedside manner attempting the same thing. So Cobi employs a less intimidating alternative: a needle-less injection technology developed by another company that uses a high-pressure fluid jet, no thicker than a human hair, to inject the vaccine’s contents deep into arm tissue.
Some medical robots, such as those designed for surgery, are remotely operated by real surgeons who can be miles away but still monitor the progress of the procedure through live video streams. Cobi, instead, automates all of that, first using cameras to detect the presence of a patient and then their documentation or identification. The robot’s hand features a LiDAR sensor that quickly scans the patient to create a 3D map of their body which is analysed by software to determine the best spot for an injection to be made. Through a display, the patient is then given instructions on how to prepare for the shot, including where to stand, in what position, and whether articles of clothing need to be removed.
In a real-world setting, there are thousands of variables that need to be taken into account for such a robot to be effective at that specific task, including systems put in place to ensure that patients are who they say they are (facial recognition, etc.) which is why the platform’s creators believe it will still be a couple of years before Cobi starts administering vaccinations. But automating this task could make vaccinating large populations easier, cheaper, faster, and safer as it potentially reduces the exposure risk for medical professionals too. And while two years seems like a long time, we’re still not sure how long the current pandemic will drag on, and annual Covid-19 booster shots are starting to seem like a very real thing.