These “Unmanned” Technologies Found New Directions Amidst the Coronavirus Outbreak

Chinese farmers using drones to spray 84 disinfectant on the road (source: news.cn)

When it comes to AI and robotics, there are optimists, and there are skeptics. As someone working in AI and autonomous transportation, I constantly struggle to convince people to accept autonomous solutions. “This is so far away,” they would say. “What are the use cases of autonomous drones anyway?” They would ask.

As the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus becomes an international crisis, the Chinese tech industry is forced to get creative in finding solutions to avoid direct human interactions. All of a sudden, these previously “useless” and “too far ahead” technologies found their use cases.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Last week, a video of a policewoman warning pedestrians to wear masks through a drone-carried speaker went viral on Chinese social media. The policewoman, her dialect and the unmanned aerial vehicle came together to unintentionally provide comic relief to the planet’s most populous nation during these depressing outbreak days.

Photos of using drones for disinfection (source: https://uav.huanqiu.com/article/3wsg0RxVrkH)

The world-leading drone manufacturer DJI established a 10 million yuan fund to combat the coronavirus through donating medical equipment, funding drone-enabled disinfection and establishing drone-enabled disinfection protocols. DJI’s competitor, China’s No. 1 agricultural drone tech company XAG has allocated 50 million yuan to allow drones to be used for disinfection in remote areas.

Infographic on DJI’s operational location in combating coronavirus, covering 211M sqm in 3165 villages, flying 4284 hours in 64100 flights (source: DJI Agricultural Epidemic Prevention Center)

Agricultural drones have been widely used to spray fertilizers and pesticides since 2013. This well-established technology has now seamlessly been transferred to support China’s medical needs in order to contain the outbreak.

Unmanned ground vehicles

Both Guangdong People’s Hospital and Hangzhou First People’s Hospital have adopted unmanned ground vehicles to deliver medications and food to quarantined patients. It minimizes the interaction between nurses and patients.

Photo of the robotic servant in service (source: Zhejiang TV station)

For each trip, the unmanned robot could deliver up to four meals. The machine can use elevators, avoid obstacles and find its way back to chargers.

Though the use of unmanned delivery robots is still being tested, it has revealed a valid pain point in the medical field that could be solved by unmanned systems.

Remote work

People who follow me for a while know that I am a digital nomad and an advocate of remote work. Back in December 6th, 2019, I read an article titled Zoom Video Stock Drops Despite Earnings Beat and Guidance Raise. The Chinese nationwide work-from-home experiment brought on by the outbreak has revived Zoom’s stock price. Since corporates in Beijing came back to work remotely on February 3rd, after the prolonged Chinese New Year, Zoom’s stock price has been soaring. On February 3rd, Zoom’s stock closed at $87.66 USD, rising by +15%, its highest daily percentage change in 8 months.

Zoom’s stock price as of Feb 5th (source: Google)

Meanwhile, Huawei, in cooperation with China Telecommunications Corporation, launched the first remote video diagnostic center supported by optical cables. In the future, the remote diagnostic center will also be able to support 5G.

Photo of the remote diagnostic center in Huoshenshan Hospital, Wuhan (source: TMTPOST)

The special circumstances posed by the outbreak have given people an opportunity to reimagine the use of certain technologies in ways that we could not have foreseen. Technology continues to play a part in the fight with the disease. Some may say that the tech corporations’ involvement in the outbreak mitigation is solely dictated by marketing needs, but this time, I choose to see the light in humanity. I choose to see that people are united to fight against the disease with the tool of technology.