Photos of the robot, Lingcai, soon made headlines across the city, which has seen a resurgence of COVID-19 cases since December last year. Local medical staff hailed the robot invention, saying it limits person-to-person infections.
It can perform quick sampling in a completely isolated environment so that neither medical workers nor those tested are at risk of contracting or passing on the virus, said Duan Weiying, a local medical staff member at a community COVID-19 testing site.
The sampling process is easy: The robot picks up a swab after a person has scanned an ID card. A medical worker, guided by a vision system, operates the robotic arm to identify the right point to swab in the person's throat. Once the swab is complete, the robot places the sample in a jar and screws on the lid. The jar is then sent to a lab for analysis.
According to its main developer, Shenyang Institute of Automation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the robot supports multi-person sample collection and has a processing mode for more than five people automatically.
Researchers said the robot is also useful at airport customs and on highways, as it can complete required throat swabs with greater efficiency than conventional sampling methods.
The Chinese robot is awaiting national invention patents, and its clinical results were published in the European Respiratory Journal last year.
Nucleic acid testing is one of the most important diagnostic methods for COVID-19. The current sampling process requires medical staff to wear heavy protective suits to be in close contact with the tested people. Inserting a swab into the throat can cause the people to cough, which may send droplets into the faces of medical personnel.
Lingcai is not the only sampling machine targeted at reducing cross-infection risks.
In November last year, researchers from the Shenzhen Hospital of the Southern Medical University developed a labor-saving machine that enables users to take throat swab samples for COVID-19 testing by themselves, without the aid of any medical staff. It is likely to move into mass production this year.
In October, a research team from Tsinghua University announced it had developed a mobile testing lab equipped with throat swap sampling robots. The team has delivered its first mobile lab to a hospital in South China's Zhuhai.
More robotic testers are expected to be ready for mass testing in the near future.