From robots to helmets for itchy noses: Inventions inspired by Covid-19

<p>Imam Saroso (R) and his wife Faizah Badaruddin (L), who are hearing and speech-impaired, pose with homemade face masks which enables people with disabilities like them to read lips when communicating, in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on April 28, 2020 amid
A deaf tailor in Indonesia, Ms Faizah Badaruddin (left), made a see-through mask that allows users to lip-read through a clear plastic "window" over the mouth. PHOTO: AFP

Though the Covid-19 pandemic slammed the door on all of us, and fear of the coronavirus loomed large, the past year has seen a bounty of stunning innovations.

The global health crisis has pushed scientists, health workers, engineers and ordinary people across the world to come up with ideas that have changed our lives.

Some are so innovative that they could be in use long after the pandemic. Others are so quirky that we just have to include them in this list.

Eating and drinking safe

QR code menus have become an everyday, cost-effective alternative to grimy menus touched by many dirty hands. Hoteliers say the bonus is faster orders and billing, fewer mistakes and more time for staff to do other chores.

A robot wearing a vest and bow tie greets you when you walk into a bar in South Korea, then proceeds to make an ice ball for your whiskey - using a fraction of the time taken by a human. Elsewhere, a robot arm shakes up mojitos and other cocktails with a consistency that human bartenders cannot match. Welcome to the Covid-19-era bar, where robots help to minimise human contact in crowded hangouts. Just do not expect any juggling of bottles by these hard workers.

Some restaurants in Europe use "bubbles" for virus-free dining out. They come in various forms such as oversized plastic lampshades, large head cones or couple domes that form a protective wall around diners.

For those who prefer to keep their face masks on while eating or drinking, they can go for a mask with a mouth opening. Designed by Israel-based technology firm Avtipus Patents and Invention, the eating slot can be opened mechanically or automatically. The slot opens for a few seconds for a person to put food inside the mouth, and closes when the person is chewing.

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Safe delivery, collection

Small robots are delivering food in certain United States university campuses, buoyed by a rising desire for contactless deliveries and a shortage of workers. Hospitality giant Sodexo has partnered with Kiwibot to use a sidewalk delivery robot called Starship, which looks like it is from the Star Wars movie. Users can enter a code via a phone app to open the robot and retrieve their food.

The Indian state of Kerala created a booze pickup app that is both liberating and shocking for a country where few people drink at home. Called BevQ, the hugely popular app allows users to make their selection from a drop-down menu. They can then pick up the bottles from the nearest state-run liquor store at a fixed time slot to prevent overcrowding.

Vietnam's rice ATM might live on long after the pandemic. The 24/7 automatic machine dispensed free rice to the poor who were out of work during the country's lockdown.

Hand to mouth

The Japanese came up with portable handwashing stations. WOTA, a water treatment company, has such self-contained machines called WOSH outside shopping malls. The machines do not need connection to running water because they recycle the water through a three-stage process. But they have to be hooked up to electricity. Another company, Lixil, created a refillable handwashing station with a holder for soap.

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Hands-free door openers for bathrooms enable people to avoid touching a door handle that is potentially full of germs. A small ledge is attached to the bottom of a door, and people can place their foot on it to pull the door open. In the United Kingdom, Mr Wyn Griffiths had another idea. After his wife visited a hospital in England and had to touch door handles after sanitising her hands, he came up with a prototype "arm" which attaches to a door handle, with a crook to open the door.

Vietnam made a Vilhem helmet that allows you to drink water with a straw or scratch your nose through a glove box while suited up. It is a godsend for those with itchy noses, especially for some health workers who are in protective suits all day. A deaf tailor in Indonesia, Ms Faizah Badaruddin, made a see-through mask that allows users to lip-read through a clear plastic "window" over the mouth.

Vietnamese inventors came up with the Vilhem helmet, which allows you to drink water with a straw or scratch your nose through a glove box while suited up. PHOTO: VIHELM - MOBILE ISOLATION HELMET / TWITTER

Smarter, faster healthcare

Hospitals across the world saw scenes of absolute chaos in 2020, but soon adopted medical booking apps to manage their queues.

Governments also tied up with start-ups to use commercial drones to drop off medical supplies, pills and groceries to patients in quarantine in countries including the US, Britain and South Korea.

Singapore's SafeEntry Gateway box allows visitors to easily check in at malls, supermarkets and other places with high traffic for contact tracing. Designed to identify instances of Covid-19 exposure, the system makes it easier to check into venues without fumbling with QR code scanning. Like tapping your card at the train station, the user can simply tap their phones or contact-tracing tokens against a reader.

People checking out using the SafeEntry Gateway check out box at The Star Vista on June 29, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

In Thailand, sweat-sniffer dogs debuted as coronavirus detectors. Experts say an infected person has a distinctive smell even if they show no visible symptoms. The super Labradors have shown an accuracy rate of 95 per cent, and are faster - and cuter - than any test kit. They have since been stationed in airports and boat piers in several countries.

Walk-through testing booths have become so common globally that we do not even notice them as an innovation anymore. No one loves to be swabbed, but the truth is this simple pandemic innovation that popped up in early 2020 saved time and kept front-line workers safe. Korea Kiyon co-developed the testing facility with Dr Ahn Yeo-hyun, who works at a public health centre in Busan, South Korea.

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Reuse, recycle

In India, Dr Binish Desai, 27, came up with a way to convert single-use face masks and personal protective equipment into bricks. The sustainable Brick 2.0 is lighter but stronger than clay or cement bricks, and is fireproof and water resistant. It also costs a third less than conventional bricks.

Creative bakers in Vietnam churned out dragonfruit banh mi, or small baguettes, to use up all the fruit that could not be exported to its main market China amid Covid-19 restrictions. Some chefs said they replaced 60 per cent of the water in the dough with a dragonfruit smoothie, making for a slightly sour, bright pink bread with a crunchy crust.

Fun mobile school

With more than 26 million children forced out of school in Ethiopia during Covid-19 lockdowns, non-governmental organisation Save The Children revived a 2010 idea of running camel libraries. At least 21 camels carry up to 200 storybooks in wooden boxes strapped to their backs. The unique library is currently reaching more than 22,000 children in 33 villages. Pakistan and India have also caught on, launching the libraries in their desert regions.

The Philippine department of education made school-in-a-box kits for kindergarten children during the pandemic. Each child got a plastic bin with learning packets, storybooks, school supplies, a hygiene kit and a toy. The kit also included a guide for parents on home-learning activities and a guide on creating a study environment at home. Many developing countries followed suit.

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Virtual activities, safe travel

As flights were grounded, virtual tourism became the rage. A stunning virtual reality adventure into Machu Picchu or the Galapagos Islands might be here to stay as an eco-friendly solution to over-tourism too. Other tour companies used augmented reality technology for GPS-guided tours with an avatar.

In Myanmar, a live guide with a camera and mobile phone connection takes clients along a predetermined route. In Israel, Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former soldiers that gave walking tours of Israel-occupied Palestinian towns for many years, began virtual tours of Hebron city via Zoom during the pandemic. They were able to do the tours more often, and with less interference from the police.

Machu Picchu, a Unesco World Heritage Site, was accessible through the first-ever virtual walk-through organised by Cityneon, a Singapore global experience entertainment company.

Amazon Explore offers more than 175 virtual experiences such as letting armchair travellers visit vintage stores in Tokyo or a Norwegian department store. A live guide uses a handheld camera to take people through the shops, browsing for them and picking what they like. They can even take tango lessons with a trainer in Buenos Aires, taste pre-delivered chocolate while watching it being made, or learn to make salsa from a rural cook in Mexico.

At airports and hotels, contactless check-in kiosks have been quite an experience for many travellers. Instead of using the touch screen, passengers move their fingers above the screen to check in and the kiosk can sense the input from the movement.

Japan installed an airport check-in system with facial recognition technology that made a traveller's face his boarding pass. The technology Face Express matches a passport photo with the traveller's face, even when he is wearing a mask. Personal information, including facial images, is automatically deleted within 24 hours after registration.

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Singapore's immigration authority is looking at a New Clearance Concept for local residents to pass through immigration gates without having to produce their passports from next year. It could reduce contact with immigration officers. Last year, all immigration checkpoints in the country cut touch points by replacing fingerprint scans with facial and iris scans as the main way to identify travellers.

Over in South Korea, Incheon airport developed the world's first antiviral baggage system. A system installed on the conveyor belt in the arrival area will automatically disinfect bags with ultraviolet rays before passengers claim them.

The new iris and facial feature recognition technology at Woodlands checkpoint on Oct 28, 2020. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Robots rule

Besides delivering medicine and food, and bartending, robots also performed surgical operations, UV sanitisation, helped doctors check on contagious patients, as well as ensured mask compliance and social distancing. A Hong Kong survey found that people preferred to see a robot spraying disinfectant than a human.

Ugo, the remote-controlled cleaning robot developed by Japanese start-up Mira Robotics. PHOTO: UGO.ROBOT / INSTAGRAM

Robotic hands, originally developed for amputees, are now mounted on a robot or a cart to let doctors treat patients at a safe distance. Some of them even make conversation with lonely patients, especially children.

Ugo, the remote-controlled cleaning robot developed by Japanese start-up Mira Robotics, uses ultraviolet light to kill viruses, patrols buildings and cleans on its own. It was first developed for the country's ageing population, but got an upgrade during the pandemic.

  • Additional reporting by: Kenny Chee, Senior Tech Correspondent; Walter Sim, Japan Correspondent; Tan Hui Yee, Indochina Bureau Chief; Debarshi Dasgupta, India Correspondent; Chang May Choon, South Korea Correspondent, Linda Yulisman, Indonesia Correspondent

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