Robotics, Technology Thu, Mar 19, '20
COVID-19 Next Steps: Robots for Social Distancing and Consumer Trust

The everyday for North America has changed dramatically in the last two weeks.

In our SoftBank Robotics America headquarters city of San Francisco, we're currently under "shelter in place" orders. Around the world, we're just realizing our new reality, it's impact, and its expected longevity.

Once we emerge from this turbulent state into the new normal, we're all going to have certain expectations to feel confident in our day-to-day lives. Consistent sanitation of high touch areas, remote work for those sensitive or unwell, reduced face-to-face interaction, and more. And we're going to need more robots to support these new demands for society.

Robot Applications to Ramp Up When COVID-19 Reality Stabilizes

Speaking with the San Francisco Business Times, Kass Dawson, Head of Business Strategy, at SoftBank Robotics America, said demand for the company’s Whiz autonomous vacuum sweeper robot and humanoid robot Pepper is likely to increase in the future.

“The biggest impact will be on the cleaning industry because people are demanding cleaner spaces and ways to mitigate or reduce human contact,” Dawson said, noting Whiz does the vacuuming so the cleaning staff can focus on the areas that require more expertise, the Business Times reported.

High value automation, which addresses repetitive, pervasive tasks with consistency and quality, is essential for consistent, trusted environments. Right now, with social distancing, as workforces are asked to stay home and remote work has surged, workers need the support of robots in the field, particularly around sanitation and restocking. When we somewhat return to our daily lives as the virus plateaus, collaborative robotics, or cobotics, applications between robot and robot supervisor will surge, especially for areas like cleaning, food service, and delivery logistics. 

Finding information without having to wait in line, an application of humanoid robotics that can limit exposure, will also be key. With oddly comforting jokes, wit, politeness, and gesticulation, not to mention the ability to have a fully verbal, touchless conversation, humanoid robots can make information sharing human again. 

Rebuilding Consumer Trust with Automation 

“We are still in a phase of fear and uncertainty with the virus,” Dawson told the Business Times. “In January and February, most of America was in denial. But in the last three or four weeks there has been an exponential growth in awareness.”

The key to robot adoption so far in the US has been the clear, demonstrated cobotics business use cases and KPIs. Does this robot deliver a confirmed clean? Can this robot promote credit cards? Is inventory up-to-date thanks to this robot? Were my groceries successfully delivered by a robot? Use cases in a socially distant world are far more foundational. Do I trust when I return to my office that they had the resources to detail clean for a virus that can live on surfaces for days at a time? Would I prefer a robot manning my food or coffee preparation? How do I find humanity in processes and devices helping to keep us distant? From a robot-prepared meal or coffee to a robot showing you exactly where it cleaned or helping keep shelves stocked with essential goods, robotics and automation must now help consumers rebuild trust in frequented places moving forward. 

The post-coronavirus era will build social acceptance of robots, and it is the responsibility of robotics and automation companies to show how they can elevate humanity and facilitate healthy living in the months to come.