France has led the development of many robots, from huge machines assembling cars to the humanoid ones slowly finding a place in care homes and centres for autistic children.
With Covid-19 limiting human contact, robots, which are immune to all but computer viruses, will do more.
At least, that is the hope of robot manufacturers, but they are realistic on the technical and financial limits.
Two French firms have unveiled specialist robots for disinfection tasks.
MG-Tech, in Vendee, usually makes autonomous chariots to transfer parts inside factories but, working with La Rochelle’s Shark Robotics, it developed Rhyno Protect, a radio-controlled sanitising device for open-plan offices.
The €45,000 machine can treat a surface of 20,000m2 in three hours, with the 4kph device guided by an operator either inside or outside the room.
It can be converted into a barrow or tractor to carry up to three tonnes.
MG-Tech managing director Eric Gautier told Connexion they chose to have a human in control as fully autonomous robots “add so many layers of cost and complexity, it is not practical”.
He said: “Shark Robotics specialises in machines for the military to defuse bombs and firefighters to search in hazardous conditions. Robots cost less than humans, and they help reduce the risk to humans in this pandemic.”
Mobile robot specialist Hellomoov has also converted one of its transporters into a disinfecting machine. Called RED – Robot Expert de Désinfection – it can disinfect 100m2 a minute.
On a more human scale, Professor Laurence Devillers (right), a Sorbonne specialist in robot use ethics, said the most striking technology change had been the growth of telemedicine.
She said: “Before lockdown, this was used in1% of consultations. That leapt to 11% as people opted for it rather than risk contamination in a waiting room.
“Now we will see more people in ‘medical deserts’ [areas lacking GPs] using special cabins with heart monitors and blood pressure machines sending data down the line to a GP for consultations.”
There have been problems. One machine to put patients in touch with doctors was tested to let family members speak to and see the patient. It was discontinued as families were distressed at the sight of their relative.
Prof Devillers, who has written a book on Les Robots Emotionnels, said there were ethical questions: “Even highly developed robots that respond to human voices are limited in what they can do. It can be disturbing for people who expect them to do more.
“Plus, there are questions on the data the robots gather and its uses. Which is why I am calling for far more teaching about robots and their limits for the general public.”