Coronavirus pandemic

Out for a run? PUB's robots will remind you to keep your distance

The O-R3 is an autonomous robot used by water agency PUB to broadcast safe-distancing messages at Bedok Reservoir park.
The O-R3 is an autonomous robot used by water agency PUB to broadcast safe-distancing messages at Bedok Reservoir park.ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Water agency PUB has a new kind of safe-distancing ambassador on the ground.

It rumbles around on four wheels, has cameras that can see 360 degrees, and never tires of telling people to keep their distance and stay home.

Called the O-R3, it is an autonomous robot originally used for surveillance at Bedok Reservoir.

But with Covid-19 spreading in the community, the PUB last Thursday started using it to broadcast safe-distancing messages at the park.

"To curb the spread of Covid-19, gatherings at this park are not allowed. Please practise safe distancing at all times and do not loiter at this park. Stay safe, stay home," goes the broadcast by O-R3.

Parks have become an area of focus during this circuit breaker period, as the Government zooms in on ways to ensure people stay at home to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

During this circuit breaker phase, which began on April 7 and will last until June 1, people are allowed out of their homes only to perform essential tasks. Besides buying groceries and seeing a doctor, these also include exercising.

But parks have continued to be a draw for crowds, so the authorities have been progressively tightening the screws.

Beaches were closed from April 11, and all carparks at gardens, parks and nature reserves have also been closed since last Wednesday.

O-R3 is the latest effort to keep people from loitering outside.

Developed by local technology company Otsaw, which specialises in building security robots, O-R3 resembles a tiny car.

It is armed with sensors that can capture, record and process data that can be sent to officers in real time.

Both the PUB and Otsaw saw an opportunity for the robot to be used to encourage safe distancing during the circuit breaker period, said a PUB spokesman yesterday.

"The robot patrols the reservoir and broadcasts messages in four languages, reminding visitors to refrain from gathering or loitering at the reservoir parks and to adhere to safe-distancing requirements," said the spokesman, adding that the robot is not used for enforcement.

The robot conducts daily patrols in the mornings and evenings, when human traffic at the park is the highest. Similar robots will be deployed at Pandan and MacRitchie reservoirs.

The robot was first deployed last May by PUB at Bedok Reservoir in a trial to support its surveillance operations.

At Bedok Reservoir, O-R3's rounds at the park attract curious stares from runners.

Ms Angela Oh, 30, who runs at the park about three times a week, feels that it will serve as a deterrent to those who loiter outside, while helping the authorities save on manpower.

"If the robot is patrolling, I think people will be more conscious about keeping a safe distance. It'll help to drive home the message," said the sales manager.

Singapore is not the only country tapping drones and robots in the fight against Covid-19.

In China, drones were used for both public surveillance, as well as to spray disinfectant in affected areas.

Technology is seen as a key enabler in the fight against the pandemic.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last week that Singapore must make better use of information technology to track and trace infections.

Robots have also been used to deliver meals and medicine at community isolation facilities here.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2020, with the headline 'Out for a run? PUB's robots will remind you to keep your distance'. Subscribe