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Coronavirus Test

Robot swabs patients’ throats for Covid-19

Robotics researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have developed the world’s first fully automatic robot capable of carrying out throat swabs for Covid-19, so that healthcare professionals are not exposed to the risk of infection. The prototype has successfully performed throat swabs on several people. The scientists behind are cheering: The technology works!

By Birgitte Dalgaard, , 5/27/2020

In just four weeks, a team of the best robotics researchers from the University of Southern Denmark has succeeded in developing the world’s first fully automatic throat swab robot, scheduled to swab the first patients for Covid-19 already by late June.

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.

Picture of Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu getting a throat swab by the world’s first fully automatic robot that can carry out throat swabs for Covid-19.

Work around the clock

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.

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.

Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu, Professor

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.


OUH Director welcomes robot

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.

Picture of the world’s first fully automatic robot carrying out throat swabs for Covid-19.

Throat swab robot for sale

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.

Investors

Investors consist of a consortium in which the Swedish venture fund Norrsken Foundation joins 50 per cent, while REInvest Robotics and SDU share the last 50 per cent. Vækstfonden supports with DKK 2 million as a convertible loan.

– 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.

Ready for the second wave

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.

It is amazing to see how quickly this idea has jumped from idea to action in an area where new inventions are needed here and now. I am impressed that the researchers have already finished their prototype on a swabbing robot. This is a good example of how Danish research manages to move quickly and create concrete and workable solutions amid the global corona crisis. It shows once again that we have world-class researchers.

Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, Minister for Higher Education and Science

Portrætbillede af Esben Østergaard

Co-founder of Universal Robots and REInvest Robotics, Esben Østergaard decided early in the process to invest in the development of a throat swab robot. Here is his explanation:

Like so many others, I was horrified to see that the Covid-19 crisis was rapidly developing. I felt I needed to do something. With my background, the obvious choice was to automate the testing process as testing seems to be the key to dealing with this kind of crisis. The current manual process is both difficult and cumbersome, and a machine reduces the risk of infection among healthcare professionals and patients, as well as providing higher quality test results. It is no easy task to get a robot to perform a throat swab, but fortunately in Denmark we have world-class knowledge within robots and machine safety, allowing us to develop just such a robot in record time.

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Meet the researcher

Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu develops technical solutions for the healthcare system. Already in his time as a PhD student, Thiusius Rajeeth Savarimuthu researched purposefully to automate blood sampling in order to relieve the laboratory staff. Most recently, he has developed a scanning robot in collaboration with Chief Physician and researcher in rheumatoid arthritis, Søren Andreas Just, OUH.

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