Franka-Emika CEO Simon Haddadin This founder is building the first swabbing robot for Coronatests
Franka Emika’s 140-person team faced significant challenges in developing the robot.
Berlin It took three sleepless nights, then SR-NOCS was born. The name stands for "Swab Robot for Naso- and Oropharyngeal Covid-19 Screening," or in German, swab robot for nasal and pharyngeal swabbing in Covid-19 diagnostics.
Simon Haddadin came up with this word monstrosity. He is the founder and CEO of Franka Emika. At the beginning of the corona crisis, the German Federal Ministry of Research contacted the Munich-based robotics startup, Haddadin reports: whether it could make a meaningful contribution during this difficult time?
Haddadin then joined colleagues from the Technical University of Munich in the startup’s lab during those same sleepless nights and developed the first prototype. Five months later, the robot is now ready for mass deployment. The device received approval as a class one medical device. According to Haddadin, the SR-NOCS is the first smear robot of its kind and is designed to make coronatests safer and faster.
Hundreds of millions of times people worldwide have been tested for the virus by others. If Haddadin has his way, his robots will soon take over this job. "It’s unprecedented interaction between humans and machines," he says.
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SR-NOCS is about the size of a human arm and made of white painted aluminum. In a parking lot of the emergency room of Munich’s Klinikum rechts der Isar, the robot stands on a table behind a plexiglass pane, as can be seen in a video. In front, a test subject being swabbed by SR-NOCS.
Sensitive robot technology
As if by magic, the robot arm pushes a plastic attachment through a recess in the disc until it is firmly in place. The test person must first put on his nose and then his mouth and confirm with a pedal that he is ready for the smear test. The robot then passes a cotton swab through each plastic part, which it packs into a tube. He then throws away the plastic attachment and disinfects his gripper arm.
Franka Emika’s 140-person team faced two major challenges in developing the robot. For one thing, they had to make sure that tested individuals didn’t leave behind viruses for others to catch. "Everything that can be contaminated has to be on the side of the robot for this, which is separated from the patient with a plexiglass pane," says Haddadin.
A robot costs 30 euros on sale.000 euros, but can also be rented.
Secondly, the team had to program the robot in such a way that no errors occur during the smear test and that it does not deliver a false result. "The nasopharyngeal swab only works if it is performed correctly," says virologist Martin Sturmer of the University of Frankfurt. And further, "It’s not enough to just dab around in the regions. It must be ensured that enough material is extracted in the process."
So the robot has to penetrate deep with the cotton swab, but must not hurt the patient in the process. The biggest difficulty for the team was the different anatomy of humans in the throat area. "In addition to varying normal, there are deformities, different depths, some have a birth defect like harelip," Haddadin says.
This is where the robot technology that Franka Emika had developed over the years paid off. Haddadin founded the start-up together with his brother Sami in 2016. He had developed an algorithm that teaches robots a sense of touch and that is the basis for the start-up’s robots today.
To put it simply, the gripper arm is sensitive and can feel its way forward. The program compares measured resistance with expected resistance to know if the robot is applying too much force. Since the start of production in 2018, the company has sold nearly 3000 robots for various applications and has raised nearly 60 million euros in venture capital. Among others, the billion-dollar machine manufacturer Voith has a stake of just under ten percent in the start-up.
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Franka Emika was able to prove in a study with several hundred participants that the technology leads to the same result as a smear test taken by qualified personnel. To do this, subjects first took a classic test and then used the robot.
"The results show a complete match of the test results – so our automated examination machine actually replaces the manual smear test and immediately protects the patient and staff from infection risks," says Haddadin. "After the examination, all said they would choose the robot-assisted smear test for upcoming examinations."
Nevertheless, a supervisor should be present to clarify any questions that may arise. One person can monitor up to five robots simultaneously.
In the coming weeks, the study will be continued with around 10.The study is being continued with a total of 000 test subjects; the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich and the Klinikum rechts der Isar are involved. Now the startup is setting its sights on the global market. "We see a lot of potential in China and the U.S., but also in neighboring European countries that are more affected by the corona crisis than Germany," says Haddadin.
The new system is not cheap. A robot costs 30.000 euros, but can also be rented. Nevertheless, Haddadin reports that he has already been able to win university clinics, municipal and regional hospitals, and a private clinic chain with 20 locations as partners throughout Germany.
In addition, he says, there is interest from the manufacturing industry in using the examination machine to test the workforce on a daily basis in order to ramp up production again. Currently, he says, the startup is in a position to deliver 1000 more test robots this year.
Doubts about economic viability
However, Raul Rojas, a professor at the Dahlem Center for Machine Learning and Robotics at FU Berlin, sees neither "economic nor business advantages" in the technology. He could not imagine how the robot would be cheaper in the long run than a nurse who could do the smear test just as well.
"What do you do with all the robots when there is a vaccine?", he also asks. If you really wanted to automate this process, other methods would suffice. For example, people could be guided by professionals via camera.
Frankfurt virologist Sturmer, on the other hand, has something to gain from the technology. "If a robot can take a swab of the same quality as a specialist and without contamination, there is nothing to be said against its use in principle," he says. "It would even have the advantage of not getting tired and not being able to infect itself."
This article is an excerpt from the exclusive technical briefing Handelsblatt Inside Digital Health. Twice a week, we analyze the latest developments in digital health there.