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This robot could make COVID-19 testing faster and safer

An automated system from Bright Machines could increase the number of coronavirus tests completed per day, and keep lab workers from contracting the virus.

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Bright Machines is developing an automated system that can test samples for coronavirus, without putting lab technicians at risk.

Bright Machines
This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Reliable, accurate COVID-19 testing is necessary for controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus and reopening the US. But the nation has faced a number of obstacles, including a shortage of tests and long wait times for results, due in part to the fact that most testing is done manually. And the process puts lab technicians at increased risk of contracting the virus. 

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To speed up the testing process and protect lab workers, software and robotics company Bright Machines is leading an effort to develop a robotic system that can process COVID-19 test samples with little human involvement. Automating the lab testing process would also allow testing to be done 24/7, greatly increasing the volume of tests done per day, according to the company. 

"I've been a part of projects where people think 'robots are trying to take my job,' but in this case it's really saving lives," said Hagai Bar, system engineer at Bright Machines. "You're just replacing all that unnecessary manual work." 

Bright Machines typically works with electronics manufacturers on "microfactories" -- combinations of hardware and software used to assemble and inspect products. The COVID-19 testing machine -- a collaboration with Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital Laboratory,  Impact Lab and iCobots -- uses standard Bright Machines building blocks: A robotic cell, a dual-conveyor, a robotic arm and a vision system. The robot is programmed to open the different-sized test tubes, drawing samples from the patient test tube to the control tube, and the vision system works to verify performance throughout the process, Bar said. 

The machine will soon be moved to Ichilov Hospital Laboratory. Once installed, it will likely take a few more weeks for it to be fully operational, Bar said. It'll provide the system at no cost for up to 12 months. A number of testing facilities around the world have also gotten in touch with the company about the solution, and those conversations are ongoing, he added. 

"This project really highlights the importance of automation in manufacturing in general, and in the medical field specifically," Bar said. "Redundant, risky manual labor is removed. And robots don't get tired and don't make mistakes -- testing labs can operate around the clock." 

Bright Machines is also working with testing manufacturer Diagnostics for the Real World to automate the assembly of HIV test cartridges for its platform. With a microfactory, the diagnostics company plans to speed up cartridge assembly time from two minutes to 20 seconds per unit, and increase overall output from 100,000 units a year to 1 million units a year, according to a blog post.

Automated solutions like these can be helpful for increasing the accessibility of testing and further reducing the risk of transmission, said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, as well as the former Baltimore Health Commissioner.

"At this time of unprecedented global health emergency, we need all hands on deck and all solutions that could improve testing availability and safety," Wen said.

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