With a 3D printed, specially designed disposable tool, the robot holds a swab and hits the exact spot in the throat from which the sample is to be collected. Subsequently, the robot puts the swab into a glass and screws the lid on to seal the sample. And the researchers have tested the robot. "I was one of the first to be swabbed by the robot. It went really well. I’m still sitting here," laughs Professor Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu of SDU Robotics. "I was surprised at how softly the robot managed to land the swab at the spot in the throat where it was supposed to hit, so it was a huge success."
Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu is in charge of the team of ten researchers who have been working around the clock in the Industry 4.0 Lab at the University of Southern Denmark to develop the prototype as quickly as possible, so that the healthcare staff avoids the risk of infection when carrying out throat swabs. "We have successfully demonstrated the world’s first fully automatic throat swab and delivered a “Proof of concept” of the processes in a robotized throat swab," says Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu.
Test, test, test says WHO, but at the same time, health professionals are at risk of becoming infected when doing throat swabs on potential corona patients. Therefore, a throat swab robot was also high on the wish list when Professor Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu, after COVID-19 made its entry in March, spoke with his research colleagues at Odense University Hospital, OUH. "There are prospects in developing a throat swab robot so that robots can take over the throat swabbing work both in relation to COVID-19, but also in all future viruses," says Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu.
In this, Medical Director Kim Brixen from OUH fully agrees. He has with keen interest been following the development of the robot in the hands of the researchers. He also sees great advantage in the fact that the robot doesn’t get tired and bored of monotonous work. "Currently, healthcare professionals are carrying out throat swabs for COVID-19, but working conditions can be a challenge. The task entails long working days of monotonous work. At the same time, the employees are in great demand in other functions," says Kim Brixen, pointing out that the robot can also play a leading role in a new strategy against more common types of flu. "Large-scale testing is part of our community’s reopening strategy. The robot has great potential for mass screening for COVID-19 in the healthcare sector, but also in connection with border control or at airports. At the same time, we see that regular flu seems to have decreased during the lockdown. This may imply that we may need to rethink our strategy against the flu."
Ready for the second wave
In the shadow of the corona, the researchers have in record time managed to develop a robot that can safely be entrusted with the swab. Now the robot is ready to move out of the lab. "We have created the company Lifeline Robotics A/S, where our vision is to get the robot out to do good on the global market as quickly as possible: in airports, in refugee camps or where else it might be needed," says Søren Stig from Lifeline Robotics.
While researchers have been struggling with robotics, power management and vision technology, Søren Stig has been struggling to get investment in place and bring together a strong team aiming at turning the throat swab robot into a commercial success internationally, in line with other proud robotic bigwigs.
Heavyweights like co-founder of Universal Robots and investment company REInvest Robotics, Esben Østergaard, and Vækstfonden support the project, and if everything goes according to the ambitious plan, the robot will be swabbing the first patient’s throat in a month. "The COVID-19 pandemic abounds. The ambition is, therefore, that we must get on the market as soon as possible. The plan is that we have a prototype that swabs patients by the end of June, and that the robot is completed and ready for the market this fall when the second COVID-19 wave hits," says Søren Stig, director of Lifeline robotics. "Everyone on the team is working incredibly hard. If our plan holds, we will have achieved in 3-4 months what usually takes three years."