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SK Telecom robot

Robot enforces health measures as South Korea relaxes social distancing

Image credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SK Telecom and Omron Electronics have demonstrated an autonomous robot which supports public health measures by taking bodily temperatures, dispensing hand sanitiser and disinfecting its surroundings.

South Korea, which reported its first case of Covid-19 in January, has achieved a low national fatality rate thanks to swiftly implemented measures, including a ban on mass gatherings; some travel restrictions; strict social distancing, and a successful test-trace-isolate programme. The country is now transitioning to “distancing in daily life”.

The robot was jointly developed by SK Telecom and industrial automation specialist Omron Electronics Korea. It is intended to help enforce remaining public health measures to help prevent the transmission of Covid-19, such as temperature checks and enhanced hygiene.

The upright white robot is equipped with cameras and an LED screen to show thermal images and transmits data in real-time over SK Telecom’s 5G network.

In a demonstration at the headquarters of SK Telecom, the robot greeted visitors, dispensed hand sanitiser and disinfected its surroundings using disinfectant sprays and ultraviolet lamps. It also uses computer vision tools to detect gatherings of people and ask them to take part in social distancing, also asking people who are not wearing a mask to cover their faces.

It measures the temperature of people entering the building and sets off an alarm if anyone’s temperature is above 37.5°C.

“The robot helps minimise people-to-people contact and reduce time that’s taken for temperature checks at the entrance and the AI technology raises accuracy,” Ra Kyhong-hwan, head of data business cooperation at SK Telecom, told Reuters.

He said that the developers included a function to hide faces mirrored in the screen to protect individuals’ privacy.

A SK Telecom employee told Reuters: “It felt a bit strange when I first saw the robot, but I realise it can raise awareness about distancing and also improves accuracy in temperature checks.”

Autonomous and semi-autonomous robots are being increasingly used to minimise human contact and risk of viral transmission. Last week, a café in Daejeon, South Korea, introduced a robot barista to serve customers, allowing just one human employee to keep the café open.

South Korean cinemas and food delivery services are also among the companies handing some tasks over to robots in order to continue public-facing operations while minimising risk of human-to-human transmission.

In China, robots were deployed in some hotels to serve people quarantining after landing in the country while in Belgium, a fleet of robots were sent out to care homes to help keep residents in contact with loved ones in lockdown.

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