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Throat swab robots will ease burden on medics

By CAO CHEN in Shanghai | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-07-15 06:57

Testing for COVID-19 normally has kept clinicians clad in medical protective gear working for hours. But sample collecting is stepping closer to full automation with the development of yet another robot.

A team at Shanghai University has made a robot that gets a nucleic acid sample with a throat swab in 22 seconds.

The device, with a robotic arm and automated processing, can collect swabs, scan codes on test tubes, disinfect the device and conduct other procedures in the testing process.

People who take the test can scan a QR code to register in the system and then follow spoken instructions as the robot arm accurately swabs their throat, deposits the swab in a glass tube and seals it.

Miao Zhonghua, deputy director of Shanghai University's school of mechatronics engineering and automation and leader of the robot project, said the idea of creating the device arose during the latest COVID-19 wave in the city, when the campus was under closed-loop management.

"Clinicians performed the throat swabbing and sampling services on campus, but during the toughest time around April, when the demand for the service surged across the city, the team recognized the medics' heavy workload," Miao said.

"It motivated our team to explore using automated collecting methods on campus to ease the clinicians' burden," he said.

Shanghai has been expanding its COVID-19 control by setting up nucleic acid sampling sites citywide for the convenience of residents in need.

Over 15,000 sampling sites are scattered across the city, according to municipal data, near neighborhoods, business districts, schools and other public spaces.

Under the circumstances, automated sampling machines will save local medical resources and reduce medical workers' risky exposure to the virus, Miao said.

"The accuracy of the procedure is guaranteed by the technologies used-such as standardized algorithm, visual positioning, and 3D modeling human mouths-avoiding the uncertainty caused by doctors who are at different levels in their profession," Miao said.

The motion of the robotic arm is limited by the settings, and the device will stop moving, if the infrared system senses that the arm would otherwise extend outside the designated areas, he said.

"It's also important that the robot conducts each sampling without pressing too hard, which is achieved by sensors at the edge of the robotic arm that control the power," he said.

An online management platform that links to the machine supervises the operating conditions, medical material storage and emergency alerts.

"Further experimentation and research will be conducted to improve accuracy and stability, in order to find the right motion for each throat. We'll cooperate with local medical institutions for future commercialization," Miao said.

Research on applying technology to sampling collection has been underway at universities in China since 2020.

A team at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, for example, debuted a throat swab sample collecting robot two years ago.

As of June, that device had completed over 500 tests at People's Hospital in Shenzhen's Baoan district and other hospitals, according to the university's website.

The technology has also been under research at Tsingke Research Institute, in Shandong province, and a team at Tsinghua University since two years ago. The throat swab robot the two institutions created went into mass production in June. It takes no more than 30 seconds to collect samples per person and can operate in environments from 0 C to 45 C, according to Lyu Chunzhe, head of Tsingke Research Institute.

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