“This is just the start” – Autonomous robot developed by Waterloo performs intramuscular injections


KITCHENER – Administer a vaccine? There is a robot for that.

Cobionix, a company formed by two former mechanical engineering students at the University of Waterloo, created a versatile robotic platform called Cobi that performed the first autonomous robotic intramuscular injection.

The project marks an important step in the eventual adoption of autonomous robots in a healthcare industry littered with labor shortages.

“When it comes to autonomous robots, you don’t start with brain surgery,” said co-founder and CEO Tim Lasswell. “You start with easier tasks like disinfection, now we move on to some medical procedures with intramuscular injection, and then you can move on to more advanced procedures. “

It’s a process that will require ongoing data collection and training, he said, but it will also require training the general public to feel comfortable stepping away from human interaction in these spaces. .

Lasswell, along with co-founder and CTO Nima Zamani, made the decision to start an autonomous robotics business just before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Watching all of these new solutions hit the market for logistics, cold storage and vaccine tracking, the couple recognized that one of the main bottlenecks in the system was still injecting humans.

“That’s when we asked ourselves, ‘Going forward, do we see this as a task that humans should be doing? Is this a good use of the time of health professionals? ‘ Lasswell said.

There is also an element of cost.

While many of the doctors and nurses working to administer the vaccines have been considered volunteers, most are paid, and some up to $ 200 / hour, Lasswell said. It’s fair value, he said, but many were called back to work once hospitals came back online, leading to further shortages for vaccination sites.

Not to mention that infection rates among frontline healthcare professionals have been a constant concern for governments managing the pandemic, and any ability to reduce the time spent with infected patients is critical to ensuring safety, health and the work of health professionals in other critical areas. .

Since the creation of the company in 2019, the team has been working from the Velocity incubator in Waterloo. But when the pandemic started last March, Zamani turned their garage into their new headquarters.

Facing a “supply chain nightmare” that further delayed the project, Zamani said, the group found a way to persevere.

Using an electric soldering station and 3D printers, the robot was built entirely in the garage – “that was really the start of the garage,” Lasswell joked.

It’s built with all the sensors needed to communicate with humans, he said, as well as a long list of safety mechanisms to ensure that the robot’s brain and body can safely perform a variety of tasks. different.

It uses LIDAR sensors and artificial intelligence position tracking to identify the body, then, using 360-degree depth perception, guides the needleless “hand” into the correct position on the body’s arm. person to administer the medicine.

Using vials designed to be dispensed after use, Cobi can inject patients without the assistance of a healthcare professional and without the use of a needle.

To the user, it feels like a pinch.

While there is a clear need in the current pandemic space, society sees a long-term need in developing countries where mobile vaccination units could more easily travel without the demands of large groups.

But Lasswell points out that Cobi is a platform that can perform different functions. Thus, for vaccinations, it is simply a matter of putting a specific “hand” on the function. This will eventually lead to other health care practices like ultrasound and other minimally invasive procedures.

Ultimately, this could result in straightforward surgeries, but in the meantime the team will continue to explore and develop as the system becomes stronger and more robust.

“I think there is a great opportunity here to really refocus healthcare resources, and that’s just one example,” Zamani said. “We will find other examples to free up staff to do more things.”

With a platform now fully capable of administering injections, the company will now undertake the next steps of the project, which will include fundraising and obtaining the necessary license approvals.

It’s a multi-year process, but much of the heavy lifting in creating the first prototype has been completed.

The team also has ideas on applications in the cleantech and hospitality space, targeting projects where robots can take on tasks where there are labor shortages.

“Over the next five to ten years, we’re going to see a lot more robots in our daily lives,” Zamani said. “This is just the beginning.”

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