Honestly, it’s a headline that reads straight from a sci fi movie.  A global pandemic pushing all of humanity indoors in isolation, while a new generation of robots takes over the labor force in factories and hospitals.

Either way, it’s the reality we’re facing today.  We are in the thick of this COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide to date, we’ve lost over 100,000 lives to COVID-19. Almost 2 million have been infected. The exponentially growing demand for personal protective equipment for healthcare staff is higher than our ability to produce more or sanitize those that have been used.  30% of the US population has been sent home to work independently. Unemployment has risen 4.5% in the past two months as fewer and fewer companies have enough business traffic to sustain their usual payroll.

All this to say that business can’t go on as usual.

Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary solutions, and one solution taking shape comes in the form of mobile, autonomic robotics.


Robots are taking on the work of key points in hospital triage and product supply chain, offering the world contactless options for filling in (some of) the gaps.


“Robots have a great potential of supporting us in the current severe corona pandemic,” said Dr Susanne Bieller, General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics.

In fact, over 5,000 UV disinfection robots have already been deployed or ordered in more than 40 countries. 2,000 agricultural drones have been repurposed for spraying disinfection chemicals to destroy coronavirus in China. 20 disinfection robots now share public transport with commuters in Hong Kong.

These robotic technologies are expected to help ease the pressure of massive staffing shortages in healthcare, production, and supply chains.

Can the technology keep up?


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What types of robotics are currently in high demand due to the COVID-19 crisis?

The robots that are in highest demand for helping relieve pressure due to the pandemic include disinfection robots that can destroy the virus quickly and in large spaces, transport robots for delivering items within offices and hospitals without human-to-human contact, and warehouse supply fulfillment bots.

Milton Guerry of International Federation of Robotics explains, “Mobile collaborative robotics solutions are alleviating resource shortages caused by sudden illness and quarantine measures. Flexible production technologies have proven successful at increasing the production of goods in scarce supply, while mobile robotics is being used to relieve strain within hospitals and the logistics sector.”


Medical robots aren’t anything new. The medical robotics industry has been well-established for many years.  In fact, in 2018 alone, medical robot sales increased by 50%. That put over 5,000 new mechanical medical team members on the floors of hospitals around the world. And though the idea of your next physical exam being conducted by AI may make you uncomfortable, many of us already know someone who has undergone simple hernia repair or gallbladder removal at the hands of robotic arms.

But lately, the real heroes in the world of medical robotics have been twofold: UV disinfection bots and contactless distribution bots.


UV sanitization

In pandemic culture, sanitization reigns supreme. Just ask anyone trying to find a bottle of hand sanitizer anywhere. But for hospital staff and patients who are constantly exposed to the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus, it could be the difference between life and death.

Enter UVD robots.

UVD robots use ultraviolet light (UV-C) to kill harmful microorganisms, moving around patient rooms and operating rooms blasting every surface with UV light.  In just a short 10 minutes, UVD robots can kill 99.9% of all viruses and bacteria without a single drop of chemical product.

“We are now helping solve one of the biggest problems of our time, preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria with a robot that saves lives,” says Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics. “The immediate demand has increased a lot with the outbreak of COVID-19. Existing customers buy many more units than before, and many new customers are ordering the UVD robots to fight coronavirus and other harmful microorganisms.”  Blue Ocean Robotics has seen a growth in sales of more than 400 percent annually over the last two years.

What’s more? These robots aren’t relegated to use in hospitals. Essential businesses, airports and production facilities can benefit from UVD robots.  And when schools and other businesses re-open, we may find these bots still hovering around.

[Video of disinfection robots at work]


“[These robots] can support us in healthcare environments, but also in the development, testing and production of medicine, vaccines and other medical devices and auxiliaries. Disinfection tasks performed e.g. by UVD units or safe distribution of hospital material in quarantine zones – without personal contact are just two of many examples.”


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Contactless Supply Transport

Autonomous mobile robots are pulling major weight to assist crowded hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Literally. Examples include The Phollower 100 by Photoneo or the fleet of “Tugs” at the Hospital at University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing. These bots roll around hospitals delivering medications, meals and clean linens to patients. They can haul off waste and used linens – and they do it without needing PPE.

Some companies like Pudu Technology are even mobilizing robotic fleets to deliver medical supplies to folks confined at home.


[Video of supply bots in action]

Manufacturing & Supply Warehouses

Factory automation has been steadily developing for the past 50 years or so.  Replacing low-skill production line jobs with quick, efficient, and relatively inexpensive mechanical labor is a tale as old as industrial time.

Now, however, there are two new reasons to automate: a home-bound workforce and an increase in demand for retail delivery.

What happens to an economy when half of its citizens aren’t bringing in their usual paychecks? What happens when businesses are forced to reduce the size of their labor force to reduce the spread of a virus through human contact? What happens when more people than ever depend on the shipment and delivery of food supplies, cleaning supplies, and general day-to-day needs because stores are closed, or people are afraid to venture into public?

Disruption in our usual supply chain can be disastrous for our economy, let alone the health and wellbeing of people.

That’s why we’re seeing an increase in autonomous factory robots. These bots can scan a barcode, locate a part or product, and retrieve it from the warehouse. They can conduct regular inventory checks to ensure the products being ordered most are on hand at all times.


What technology challenges are presented by these types of machinery?

Mobile robots present a few challenges in electrical engineering.  They need to be lightweight and compact. They need to be able to run independently for several hours without recharging – i.e. a big battery pack in a small space. And with mobility comes friction, and with friction comes the potential for electrostatic discharge.

How does ESD affect robots?

An electrostatic discharge (ESD) event occurs when a highly charged object, such as a moving robot, comes in contact with an uncharged or oppositely charged object and discharges static. Because these types of mobile robots involve high voltages – up to tens of kilovolts, a discharge could product extremely high electrical current. This means that even a brief discharge can destroy or disrupt the sensitive electrical devices within the robot. Mobile robots are susceptible to electrostatic buildup caused by rolling friction of the wheels on non-conductive surfaces.

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At last year’s IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, engineers presented solutions to many of the technical challenges of creating safe and sturdy little bots with big jobs to do. Check out some of the presentation summaries here.

And the professional engineers aren’t the only ones chiming in on the subject. Students and team members collaborating in friendly robotic competition also have their finger on the pulse of robotic innovation.  The FIRST Technology Challenge has produced many reports from high school students weighing in on the problems of ESD in mobile robots.

In his report “An Analysis of ESD Mitigation for the FIRST Tech Challenge,” Eric Chin explains,

When two surfaces interact, there is generally a small amount of adhesion. This means that they share electrons and if they are made from different materials the electron sharing may be uneven. When the surfaces are taken apart, they can become charged. This is called the triboelectric effect.

The triboelectric effect is more pronounced if the two surfaces slide past each other because they are not perfectly smooth and tiny imperfections cause vibrations. This causes the surfaces to make and break contact very quickly. It is important to note that triboelectric charging takes charge from one object and gives it to another. The triboelectric effect has been found to be more pronounced in low relative humidity.”


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Contact us to discuss your need for a custom assembly, stacked and configured to achieve your application’s unique voltage, power, or packaging requirements.

Whether you’re helping to fulfill the global need for autonomous robots in hospitals and factories or designing the next generation of electronic capabilities in aeronautics and defense, MDE Semiconductor, Inc. is your #1 Source for standard or custom SMD TVS Diodes.