Imagine robots walking by your side in hospital, taking scans and checking up on you. Human-like in shape, they could take blood tests, perform echocardiograms and X-Rays, and display the results on screens attached to their chests. They could also warn you if you are not social distancing or are not wearing the masks that are part of measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Such a vision of what some might think of as a fantasy world may be nearer than many people think. This technology is already being tried out in a hospital in Tanta, the capital of the Gharbiya governorate, in the Delta region of Egypt.
After many trials, a prototype CIRA 03 medical robot has been launched by its inventor, Egyptian electronic engineer Mahmoud Al-Koumi, for use in Tanta, and he is now working on a new version to be called CIRA 04.
While CIRA 03’s main function is to test for Covid-19 among human patients, it also has other uses and can perform other aspects of medical care. CIRA 03 can take people’s temperature, warn them if they are not wearing masks and determine if they are following social-distancing rules. There are also other tests it can perform, including ultrasound scans and echocardiograms.
“CIRA 03 is the first robot in the world that can test for Covid-19, and it can be remotely controlled from almost anywhere,” Al-Koumi said.
A primary aim of the new robot is to reduce infection rates among medical staff who may be put at additional risk of contracting Covid-19 due to their close proximity to patients. In helping to reduce infection rates, the robot can also help to relieve the pressures on the healthcare system.
Al-Koumi particularly wanted to help medical staff during periods of strong demand. “I invented the robot from scratch, but the idea is particularly important during pandemics,” he said.
“The robot can be used in public places such as schools, clubs, transport areas, airports, universities, and so on. It can check on the precautionary measures being carried out in such places, like measuring temperatures, minding social distancing and reminding people to wear masks.”
Another function of the robot is to directly provide medical care in hospitals and clinics, particularly during pandemics.
Today still only 27 years old, Al-Koumi has been working in robotics and programming for around ten years and ever since he was a student. He earlier developed robots for heritage discovery purposes and for use underground, underwater and for military purposes. He has even established a youth academy for young people interested in robots, programming and artificial intelligence.
After the successful development of CIRA 03, which has now been in use for almost a year, Al-Koumi is now almost ready to unveil CIRA 04 to the wider world. “CIRA 04 will be a breakthrough in the medical sector, as it will be able to diagnose patients and even prescribe medications for certain diseases,” he said.
“I hope people will take advantage of CIRA 03 and that it can go into mass production in order to support medical staff. My aim is to serve my country with my inventions,” Al-Koumi said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Dar Al-Hekma Hospital in Tanta has been one of the first to test the CIRA 03 robot, and it is now using it routinely as part of its medical-care system. “We are keen to encourage scientific research and promote new ideas,” said Abu Bakr Al-Mihi, the manager of the hospital, explaining that it had been very open to the new idea.
“If a patient is in quarantine, CIRA 03 can perform the required blood tests, scans and also some medical procedures. Potential infections can thus be reduced to zero as everything is fully automated,” he said.
“In suspected cases of Covid-19, CIRA 03 can perform everything necessary after a patient enters the hospital. It can do everything from screening and taking the patient’s temperature to doing ultrasound tests,” he added.
It is not only the CIRA 03 robot in Egypt that has been proving its worth during the pandemic. Other robots worldwide have also been proving their importance in helping to fight against Covid-19 in cooperation with human colleagues.
Many doctors and nurses are now using telepresence robots fitted with a microphone and camera. These can allow them to treat infected patients remotely while protecting the health of hospital employees.
Staff can remotely communicate with the robots and minimise any exposure to disease. Other robots are being used to enable the remote control of ventilators and other medical equipment by putting a distance between medical staff and patients with infectious diseases.
Robots have also been used to remind the public of health and safety measures and anti-contamination rules. A robot has been used in Singapore to remind people of safety rules, for example, going around parks and urban areas to tell people to social distance.
There are also germ-killing robots that have shown their value during the pandemic. Many countries have used disinfecting robots to sanitise surfaces in hospitals and public areas to minimise the risk to human staff.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly