Robots versus COVID-19

Robotics students are building a robot to monitor COVID-19 patients

The robotics field has tackled many global challenges, from mental health to environmental sustainability. Now, it meets possibly its most challenging enemy yet in COVID-19, and College of Science and Engineering students are rising to the occasion.

With the help of CSE alumni and the Minnesota Robotics Institute (MnRI), a group of University of Minnesota Robotics students are working to build a remotely controlled robot that hospital staff can use to monitor COVID-19 patients. Because health workers could operate the robot from up to 300 feet away, this would reduce both the risk of doctors and nurses getting sick and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The students already have the 4-foot-tall robot built, and they are planning to equip it with one-way video and audio feed so that health workers can observe patients, and a thermal camera to check patients’ temperatures.

“This way, [health workers] can see what the camera sees as if they’re riding on the robot,” said UMN Robotics student Amalia Schwartzwald, who instigated the project. “They can look around and see the patients without interacting with them, and potentially getting the disease.”

Gather the troops

Schwarzwald, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering and mechanics and recipient of CSE’s Society of Women Engineers scholarship, works in computer science & engineering's Professor Nikos Papanikolopoulos’ lab. When a hospital contacted Papanikolopoulos, a McKnight Presidential Endowed Professor in computer science and engineering, about building a robot to address their COVID-19 needs, Schwartzwald jumped at the chance to help.

She recruited four of her fellow UMN Robotics team members and two CSE alumni to help. Schwartzwald had been the programming lead for the student group’s NASA Mining Competition team, but the event was canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus.

“A lot of our members didn’t have an outlet for robotics anymore and had a little bit of extra free time,” she explained. “We’re not trained medical professionals, but we do know how to build robots. So, this is a way we can contribute.”

Since they couldn’t come into the physical lab on campus, Schwartzwald and her team got to work building the robot remotely. Armed with Slack and Zoom, they each completed a portion of the design and programming, then shipped the physical parts to one student on their team for final assembly.

Julia Schatz, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, is in charge of putting all the pieces together to build the actual robot.

“I think it's important to do what we can to help fight this pandemic in any way that we can,” she said.

“For lots of people, this just means staying home, contributing to food banks, or working an essential position," Schatz said. "[Our] team has an opportunity to put our skills and experience toward something that medical professionals need, and I think it's our obligation to do that.”

Papanikolopoulos, who also serves as the director of MnRI, said he’s incredibly impressed by the willingness of the students to help—and their efficiency in doing so.

“It is really powerful and inspiring to see how these students turn a disappointment—from their canceled robotics event—into a grass-roots effort to help medical personnel,” he said. “They exemplify the flexibility that we all need to show in these unprecedented times.”

Alone together

While it’s mostly students working on this project, they have support from nearly every corner of MnRI—alumni contributing advice, engineers in industry donating parts, and lab staff helping them find the best thermal camera to use. 

Schwartzwald said they’ll take all the help they can get.

“Normally [in UMN Robotics], we have different competition teams and some people who just do outreach, but now everyone is coming together to contribute,” she said. “[Julia’s] family is actually willing to help build it as well. It’s a really cool collaboration between a bunch of groups.”

For Schwartzwald, her last semester of college hasn’t turned out as she expected, with events she was looking forward to like Spring Jam and robotics competitions getting canceled. However, she said this project has helped her and her teammates stay motivated. 

“I was left feeling kind of helpless at home,” she said. “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t go in and help people. This is a good way to make me feel like I’m being productive." 

"It’s kind of nice to have something positive to focus on other than just feeling like my senior year has ended,” Schwartzwald said.

The team is hoping to complete the robot and sending it to a hospital in the next couple of weeks. Although they’re only building one for now, Schwartzwald said if it’s successful, she hopes they can make more robots for other hospitals.

And, hospitals may even be able to build similar robots themselves in the future.

“We’re planning on creating build instructions for everything,” Schwartzwald said. “If we gave a hospital this list of parts and the [how to build] instructions, they’d be able to run to a hardware store, pick up what they need, and build it.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren