Hospital staff at Fortis Hospital in Bangalore with "Mitra," a robot helping to screen coronavirus patients.
In India, the country with the world's second-highest number of Covid-19 cases, a handful of hospitals has started to use robots to connect patients with their loved ones, and assist healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Bangalore-based Invento Robotics has designed three robots to carry out tasks ranging from disinfecting surfaces to answering patient questions and enabling video consultations with doctors.
\Of the eight the company has so far deployed, the most popular model is Mitra, which means friend in Hindi and costs around $10,000. Using facial-recognition technology, the robot can recall the names and faces of patients it has interacted with. Mitra can roam around a hospital independently, helping patients connect with family and doctors via its cameras and a video screen attached to its chest.
"Mitra can be the nurse's or doctor's assistant, take readings and vitals, remind them of medications," says Balaji Viswanathan, CEO of Invento Robotics.
He says the human-like robot engages with patients and gains their trust. "It may sound ironic but we are using robots to bring humanity to hospitals," he tells CNN Business.
Yatharth Hospital in the city of Noida, northern India, has deployed two Mitra robots — one at its entrance to screen patients for coronavirus symptoms and the other in the intensive care unit.
"Inside our ICU [Mitra] helps patients connect with their families through video stream and gives the patient's family a look inside," hospital director Kapil Tyagi tells CNN Business.
"Patients get happy and positive whenever the robot visits them. They are often clicking selfies with Mitra," he says.
Viswanathan says Invento uses "best in class security" for video feeds between doctors, patients and their families. For in-depth telemedicine consultations, a booth is built around the robot to give patients privacy.
Viswanathan and his wife Mahalakshmi Radhakrushnun moved to Bangalore in 2016 from Boston, USA, where Viswanathan was completing a PhD in human robot interaction and Radhakrushnan was working in manufacturing. They wanted to combine their experience to create robots that improved patient care in hospitals and care homes, but they struggled to find customers.
So they started supplying banks, including India's HDFC (HDB) and Standard Chartered (SCBFF) in Qatar, with robots who could identify visitors, print passes and take customer feedback.
"Two years ago, there was not much interest on the healthcare side," says Viswanathan. "When coronavirus hit, hospitals finally understood what we were talking about."
India has had more than 8 million cases of coronavirus, and more than 120,000 deaths. Hospitals have struggled to cope, and Invento isn't the only robotics company that is helping out.
Milagrow Robotics specializes in home cleaning robots, but has deployed five humanoid cleaning robots to Indian hospitals during the pandemic, while Kerala-based Asimov Robotics has created a robot to dispense medicine and clean up after patients.
Producing robots during the pandemic has been challenging, says Viswanathan.
When India went into lockdown in March, non-essential businesses closed and his company struggled to secure materials from suppliers. "There was a three to four-month delay. Manufacturing was a huge headache," he adds.
But his company is starting to deliver on its mission of improving patient care. "That is where our heart is," Viswanathan says.