April 9, 2020

COVID-19: Learning Where Teleoperation Can Help

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As we watch the terrible public health and economic impact around the world of COVID-19, the Ottopia team has been inspired by the brave people in the front lines of this fight. We are listening to government officials, workers, and businesses around the world.

Businesses and citizens around the world struggle. Industries where Ottopia has partners and customers face operational challenges, safety concerns, and financial problems. A lot of unanswered questions about the pandemic and its effects will be answered in the coming weeks, but many will not be.

The entire Ottopia team is committed to forming part of the solution to the challenges the world will face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing crisis, whether it’s in the coming month, year, or decade.

Container Shipping in Times of Containment

The world of logistics is being impacted in multiple ways, leaving the flow of most goods rather lopsided. Earlier in the year, shipments from China slowed down, leading to a shortage of key inputs for many industries. Now, it’s the slowdown of activity in major Western markets like the United States that is leading to container pile-ups and a likely increase in demurrage. That, in turn, seems to be having knock-on effects around the world: bottlenecks in bringing containers to shore are turning into bottlenecks for the outbound shipping, possibly hurting the few sectors that are ready to export — and need to, in order to weather the months ahead.

Further downstream, long-haul trucking is being stretched thin to deal with a spike in demand among major food retailers. That much is likely unsurprising, with coverage of empty shelves across the United States regularly making the news in the past weeks.

Another area getting stretched thin is online shopping and last-mile delivery. Already a mainstay for tens of millions of US consumers, demand here has boomed as well, prompting Amazon to announce massive hiring, even as brick-and-mortar giants close shops and lay off workers.

But despite the boom for grocery stores, online shopping and the packaged food industry, the underlying public health crisis threatens to shut even them down.

Out of concerns for employee health and potential contamination, there is growing public pressure to close down warehouses and food processing plants.

The full effects on the world of supply chain and logistics will be felt for a long time, and it is unclear today what the final effect will be.

Needless to say, the world of healthcare is being upended. Medical staff around the world, but particularly in hard-hit countries like Italy, Spain and the United States, risk their lives at every turn in order to tend to infected patients with limited protective equipment. They are, without a doubt, the most celebrated heroes to emerge from this global pandemic.

Essential Work… Inessential Hazards?

There are multiple fronts where help is needed, and multiple questions that we do not know the answers to yet. When will cases and fatalities diminish, not just in today’s hardest-hit countries, but globally?

One major unknown is whether the underlying cause of this crisis — the COVID-19 virus itself — will flame out after the pandemic reaches its peak, or whether it may return seasonally to different countries or regions.

The Ottopia team has raised questions that are particularly relevant to the work we do. We are prepared to help in areas where our technology can deliver relief, safety and the ability to enable remote work, even for those who today are required to be physically at their place of work.

The questions we ask ourselves of late include:

  • Where will governments, companies and communities need to minimize human contact and human presence, while keeping supply chains and deliveries running?
  • How can food and aid be safely delivered under quarantine to any citizen, but particularly the highest-risk populations (e.g., patients with preexisting conditions, the elderly)?
  • How can manufacturers of food, beverages, and other goods be able to reduce human presence in their plants and production lines?
  • How can global supply chains maintain, or even increase, their capacity and speed while dealing with health emergencies or health concerns from their workforce?
  • Will these problems need to be addressed only in the coming months? Or could this pandemic lead to a long period of time where governments and companies around the world need to take measures?

Even more importantly, we ask ourselves how autonomy, teleoperation, and other technologies support these goals — in the coming weeks and months, and also over the long term.

We’re currently exploring what are the most pressing needs for unmanned, intelligent, and remotely-assisted vehicles and robots.

What a Post-Pandemic World May Look Like

Early responses and temporary solutions hint at what the world could look like if the pandemic becomes a seasonal phenomenon.

Below are some plausible trends that arise in the aftermath of this acute pandemic. Governments, individuals and citizens may need to:

  • Use medical robots much more, whether it is to monitor patients, deliver them food without exposing personnel, or even disinfecting hospitals and other areas.
  • Meet growing consumer demand for contact-less delivery methods (e.g., via delivery robots) and a higher subscription rate for those services by restaurants large and small.
  • Minimize human presence in warehouses and in food and beverage processing facilities may be required.
  • Enable targeted automation and remote control across key areas in the global supply chain: last-mile delivery, warehouses and distribution centers, or inland and port container terminals.

Each and every one of these areas is one where Ottopia can help.

A delivery robot in Washington DC (photo by Elvert Barnes)

We are engaging with governments, individuals and businesses, understanding how, when and where our team can help. We are learning from a world in crisis, and are eager to engage with old and new partners, revisit old ideas and brainstorm new solutions.

We will be ready to do our part in rising from today’s crisis stronger and more prepared than before.

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