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As the COVID-19 pandemic ensures that the need of the hour is contact-less services, India is finally making use of robots in areas like hospitals, offices, shop floors, and factories. While it remains to be seen how this automation boom impacts the nation’s economy and unemployment, it looks like it’s definitely here to stay, even after the pandemic is over.

Services such as healthcare, food delivery, and even sitting together and working in an office after a public transport commute, or manufacturing goods in a factory, are putting us in close proximity to each other. We are well aware that this increases the danger of spreading COVID-19 virus. Remember the pizza delivery guy who tested positive leading to quarantining 72 people.

Crisis can be sort of a catalyst or can speed up changes that are on the way — it almost can serve as an accelerant

Doctors and medics throughout the nation are at risk and positive COVID-19 cases have resulted, leading to hospitals having to close down. The usage of robots in these areas avoids that contact. India is making use of robots with screening and advising capacities to ensure safe services.

India’s Robotic Predicament

India hasn’t been high on automation usage compared to nations like South Korea, Singapore, and Germany. COVID-19 is about to change that.

Even by June of last year, global usage of robots tripled in the last two decades, the number rising to 2.25 million, according to an Oxford Economics report. The report had suggested back then that this number will reach 20 million in the coming 20 years. COVID-19 will surely increase this number even further. Moreover, it is pushing India to choose automation.

Read more: India’s Own Amazon Go: Watasale Opens AI Based Automated Store in Kochi

All this while, India has been in a predicament about whether to go for automation or concentrate on creating jobs for its unemployed population. After all, smart manufacturing doubtlessly presents globally competitive opportunities. At the same time, it means lesser need for human hands per unit of output. Thus, companies can hope for increased productivity and better quality, while saving money too.

This means robotics was going to be popular anyway. The current pandemic has just made this decision for India. For example, currently, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. has around 5,000 robots at their Manesar and Gurgaon plants, one robot for almost every four workers. These numbers will only rise now.

Arun Sundararajan, an NYU Stern School of Business professor researching how digital technologies transform society told Protocol that he believes a new tech paradigm will emerge after the pandemic recedes.

“Crisis can be sort of a catalyst or can speed up changes that are on the way — it almost can serve as an accelerant,” he said.

Economic literature over the last decade shows that these investments are made especially during a crisis

Experts are also saying that investments in automation will also rise, further accelerating the transition to automation. Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director who researches automation at the Brookings Institution, told Protocol  that the view that businesses would hesitate to make capital investments in a crisis, slowing down automation, is wrong.

“Economic literature over the last decade shows that these investments are made especially during a crisis,” he said.

Hospitals Will Open the Floodgates

Many hospitals in India are turning to robots as one of the ways to maintain less contact between caregivers and patients. Delhi’s AIIMS hospital has a floor disinfectant and a humanoid robot in its COVID-19 wards. Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru is using an interactive robot to screen patients and medical staff at its entrance.

Although robotic technology is currently expensive for wider adoption across all types of healthcare settings, it is expected to find increasing use in countries such as India due to very less number of healthcare professionals available for more than 1.3 billion population

In fact, hospitals are becoming the first sector to usher in robots. From there, other sectors could also start adopting robots. Rajeev Karwal, founder chairman of Milagrow, the robotics company that is manufacturing the robots in use at AIIMS told Livemint that they are seeing an increase in demand from hospitals across India, such as Fortis, CloudNine, and Max.

“Some hospitals have shown interest in how robots can be leveraged in the long run,” he said.

The reason for hospitals choosing robots also stems from the fact that the need for hygiene requires equipment. UK-based data analytics firm, GlobalData, has said that a shortage of personal protective equipment will drive adoption of robots to treat COVID-19 patients in India.

Read more: Industrial Automation and AI Must Transform India into a $1 Trillion Manufacturing Economy by 2025: RAOTM

Moreover, let’s not forget that India’s population doesn’t have enough healthcare professionals to attend it. Bhaskar Vittal, medical devices analyst at GlobalData said in a statement,

“Although robotic technology is currently expensive for wider adoption across all types of healthcare settings, it is expected to find increasing use in countries such as India due to very less number of healthcare professionals available for more than 1.3 billion population.”

No one can take hygiene lightly anymore. The high demand in hygiene, especially in hospitals, leave no choice but to opt for least human intervention, hence, automation.

Increase in Robotics Startups

Another aspect of the economy that this new wave of automation will bring in is a slew of robotics startups in India. Some of them are already successfully mushrooming.

Asimov Robotics, a Kerala-based startup, has robots that dispense hand sanitiser and deliver public health messages about the virus at office building entrances and other public places. Their robots are also used to carrying food and medicines in hospital isolation wards.

Another startup Invento has come up with three robots to fight the pandemic, which are currently deployed in Bengaluru’s Fortis hospital. The robot Mitra screens people entering the hospital, the robot Mitri deploys telemedicine, and the third, Astra, kills the virus in the air with a powerful UVC radiation for hallways, rooms, elevators etc.

Automating in Spite of Unemployment

The unemployment rate of India has risen to 26% in April 2020 from 6.6% in January 2020 because of the pandemic, according to Statista data. From the looks of it, the use of robots is going to increase in spite of this. In fact, automation could be seeping into every industry, piggybacking the pandemic.

For example, grocery and food delivery, essential services that require public interaction like banks, retail stores, etc., all areas that require constant cleaning, all could use robots. Startups and businesses are already stepping up. Looks like India is ready to usher in an age of automation.

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