How COVID-19 Is Fast-Tracking Emerging Tech

Innovations Show Renewed Promise During Pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a major drag on the global economy, it’s helping to accelerate the development and commercialization of several emerging technologies that previously received lukewarm public and/or government support. This is especially true for innovations that reduce human-to-human contact, automate processes and increase productivity amid social distancing.

Delivery Drones

The coronavirus outbreak has given automated delivery a new sense of urgency. In China,, Pudu Technology and others have mobilized drones and robots to transport medical supplies within hospitals and clinics as well as to bring food, supplies and medicines to people confined to their homes. Support for drones in ecommerce is also ticking up. In the US and elsewhere, a growing list of companies, including Amazon, UPS, Alphabet, Domino’s Pizza and Walmart, are already testing drones to help cut last-mile delivery costs for products like retail items, medicines and fast food. Gartner anticipates that 24.9 thousand enterprise drones designed for this purpose will ship worldwide this year, though those figures were released prior to the outbreak.

Regulations, safety concerns and community opposition have limited drone use in the US and elsewhere. However, delivery drones and robots can handle high volumes of work and aren't susceptible to illness or easily spreading the virus. COVID-19's unique challenges could force the relaxation of rules and regulations as deliveries to homebound and infected people escalate. For example, medical drone delivery company Zipline, which currently delivers blood and blood products in Rwanda, planned to begin US operations later this year. Now, the company is in discussions with government regulators to launch sooner.

Worker Robots

While robots are common sights on factory floors, they’ve largely remained novelties in everyday life. This could change, as various types of robots are increasingly being enlisted to protect people during the pandemic. In China, robots are helping patients navigate hospital departments, check temperatures, transport medical samples, dispense hand sanitizer, spray disinfectant residentially and commercially and clean hospitals. Healthcare robots are also seeing increased use worldwide and becoming more involved in patient care. For example, at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, doctors used a robot to successfully treat a COVID-19 patient by sitting outside his window and using the robot’s camera, microphone and stethoscope to monitor his vital signs. The hospital staff, which used the robot to minimize their exposure, communicated with the patient using a large screen.

Robots are also being used in food services, delivering meals to COVID-19 hospital patients and replacing cooks and wait staff in some restaurants. While the food-robot industry has sometimes floundered, there's now new hope that robots like Flippy, a robot chef from Miso Robotics that prepares burgers at CaliBurger restaurants in California; and Briggo, a robot barista that brews lattes ordered by smartphone, can help make restaurants more sanitary, personalized and efficient. An October 2019 survey by Sykes found that more than two-thirds of US employees ages 18 and older believed that robots could assist them in their jobs, while nearly 32% of respondents feared robots could take their jobs.

These concerns about job replacement will persist, but it’s likely that more workers, especially those in high-risk industries like healthcare and in-person service, may soon be more receptive to robot help.

Telemedicine and Asynchronous Care

Telemedicine, a catch-all term for healthcare services delivered using telecommunications technology, has been steadily growing in recent years, but hadn’t received full-throated support from healthcare payers, providers or patients. Now, the need for virtual healthcare and wellness advice has exploded and is accelerating telemedicine adoption.

To prevent those with coronavirus symptoms from overwhelming hospitals, clinics and medical practices, the US government expanded telehealth consultations to nearly 62 million Medicare beneficiaries, making it easier for them to speak with healthcare providers, get treatment and fill prescriptions via phone or videoconference. The government also announced it would temporarily ease HIPAA privacy rules for providers seeking to deliver remote care.

An October 2019 survey by Stanford Medicine found that just 39% of US physicians used telemedicine in their practice, but this easing of restrictions will likely encourage more providers to offer virtual care.

The virus’ stress on the healthcare system is also spurring interest in asynchronous healthcare, a form of telemedicine that can help patients monitor and manage chronic conditions without face-to-face appointments. For example, there’s been a spike in demand from diabetics seeking online wellness advice via the One Drop health management platform, according to company CEO Jeff Dachis. One Drop markets a direct-to-consumer blood sugar monitoring device and digital platform that lets users measure their glucose levels via a mobile app and get forecasts of blood sugar levels up to 8 hours out. The app also delivers recommendations for addressing potential issues before they occur, and gives patients access to online counsel from One Drop’s healthcare experts.

“The virus outbreak is leading to a permanent shift in the acceptance and perception of asynchronous care, where patients and caregivers don’t need to be in the same place or converse in real time,” Dachis said. “Since diabetics who use One Drop can access online counsel and diagnoses, they also don’t put additional pressure on the already-stretched capabilities of hospitals, doctors and other practices.”

Biometrics, Computer Vision and Thermal Imaging

The use of biometric technology remains controversial, but COVID-19 is driving some governments and organizations to use it in the interest of public health. Tech companies, including Baidu, Hanvon, Dermalog and Telpo, have developed systems that use facial recognition and temperature sensing to identify suspected cases. In China, Baidu uses infrared sensors and facial recognition to scan 200 passengers per minute for fevers at Beijing’s Qinghe Railway Station. The system automatically takes a picture of a person’s face and sounds an alarm if their body temperature exceeds 99 Fahrenheit. The Moscow Times recently reported that the Russian government is using facial recognition cameras to enforce quarantine orders. And SuperCom is marketing its biometric tracking technology—which uses an ankle bracelet, smartphone app, fingerprint biometrics and voice communication—to help monitor and restrict people who are quarantined or isolated.

While these measures may help prevent infectious spread, they also raise major privacy concerns, especially in Western countries. Although 59% of US adults surveyed by Pew Research Center in June 2019 thought it was acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition to assess security threats in public spaces, some privacy experts worry that the appropriate privacy protections might be overlooked amid the scramble to stop the pandemic.

“Using facial recognition, it is easier than ever for governments to monitor and track their citizens, destroying the assumed privacy that comes with anonymity in a crowd,” Rui Lopes, engineering and technical support director at Panda Security, told Threatpost in March 2020. “Great care must be taken by any organization that adopts facial recognition at this time, and should disclose their data collecting practices.”

5G Connectivity

Wireless carriers have spent the last couple of years hyping 5G, but it still isn’t widely available. In October 2019, CCS Insight estimated there would be just 200 million 5G mobile connections worldwide this year, with most in Asia.

As telecom providers start to roll out limited 5G service, it remains a chicken-and-egg situation. They’ve been hesitant to build out capacity until they’re confident demand will reach expected levels. Meanwhile, consumers wonder how soon 5G will arrive, whether it's better than their current service and if it's worth the cost. Thanks to COVID-19, the 5G market may materialize sooner than expected. As large numbers of people work and study from home, they are stressing networks and creating higher demand for bandwidth.

“Due to the sudden uptick in existing network access to support remote work, we will witness an acceleration in the development of 5G to ensure the bandwidth and capacity challenges of existing infrastructure can be addressed," said Ian Runyon, vice president of product and mobile at enterprise expense management company Tangoe. “Once widely available and accessible, 5G will serve as the foundational support for emerging technologies in IoT and automation, among other applications.”

Social Virtual Reality

Some critics have knocked virtual reality (VR) as a “solution in search of a problem,” but COVID-19—which is forcing millions into long stretches of home confinement—may be just the problem that sparks demand. While the pandemic has caused a nearly complete drop-off in theme park- and mall-variety VR (which involves headset sharing with strangers), it is spurring interest in other areas. Not only are homebound people using VR headsets to play video games, explore virtual travel destinations and partake in online entertainment, they’re seeking human interaction through social VR platforms such as Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Bigscreen and VRChat.

Businesses are also experimenting with VR platforms to train employees, hold conferences, collaborate on projects and connect employees virtually. For example, scientists worldwide have turned to Nanome, a VR software platform for molecular design, to collaborate on coronavirus research and potential treatments.

VR headset maker HTC held its first virtual “VIVE Ecosystem Conference” completely in VR. The March 2020 event, which drew 2,000 registrants from more than 55 countries, marked the first physical industry event that was fully replaced by extended reality (XR), an umbrella term that encompasses VR, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR).

"Prior to this virus pandemic, the mindset of many people is that XR is a nice-to-have technology,” the company said in a press release. “Post-outbreak, the benefits of XR to overcome the physical barriers between people could make it a must-have technology over time. … Working-from-home, distance learning, home-based fitness, immersive entertainment and networked social interactivity will all be part of the new normal in our lives, and made more agreeable if more users could adopt XR technologies."

VR is also finding its way into medical settings to help patients facing extended periods of isolation. XRHealth, a US-based provider of therapeutic VR applications, announced in March that it would provide VR-based telehealth services to Israel’s Sheba Medical Center to treat quarantined coronavirus patients. The project will include headsets that collect patient data and enable patients to take virtual tours of various destinations. “The ability to strap on a headset, lay back, relax and virtually visit any location they want will help patients to remain connected with the world and cope with feelings of isolation while being quarantined,” said Eran Orr, CEO of XRHealth, in a statement. 

Voice Tech and Smart Homes

Today’s infection-conscious consumers are becoming increasingly concerned that their mobile devices—which are touched more than 2,600 times per day, according to one study—can spread coronavirus. Recent statistics on how long the virus can live on glass, plastic, metal and cardboard has sent many users scurrying for antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer and prompted Apple to release a list of approved cleaning methods for iPhones. As public panic over germ spread grows, so too will the use of voice tech, which can reduce these touches and, at least theoretically, slow the spread of germs within households.

A December 2019 survey from Comscore MobiLens Plus found that US smart speaker owners are already using their devices to ask general questions, stream music and get updates on sports, traffic and weather, among other things.

Voice usage will continue to pick up and extend to other smart-home components implicated as major germ hubs. As more TVs and entertainment components, light switches, appliances, plumbing fixtures and alarm systems incorporate voice control functionality, there will be less need to touch them.

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