Drones and robots: Technological aids during the Shanghai lockdown

China has made use of several advanced Industry 4.0 technologies in the fight against Covid-19, especially during the recent Shanghai lockdown. While it remains to be seen if companies will have the capacity to accelerate the production of robots and drones for other uses, their potential has been clearly showcased.
A delivery drone, transporting samples to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus, lands at a testing facility in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on 24 May 2022. (AFP)
A delivery drone, transporting samples to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus, lands at a testing facility in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on 24 May 2022. (AFP)

The use of advanced Industry 4.0 technologies has been critical in the Chinese authorities’ Covid-19 mitigation efforts. Without them, it would not have been possible to deliver heavy loads of medicines, disinfect facilities on a large scale and surveil communities to ensure lockdown compliance — all without social contact.

For instance, smart technologies and products were deployed in Shanghai’s battle against a recent surge of Covid-19 when the city was shut down in late March-April and went into lockdown until 1 June. Social media bots reached into homes and brought public health messages to all households. In another example, the Huangpu district police (gongan) utilised drones with a loudspeaker system to patrol key areas and update residents on pandemic-mitigation prevention and control policies.

Drones in different scenarios

One of the most common drone models in use, the SF Fangzhou X8 UAV, has a maximum take-off weight of 42 kg and is able to deliver 10 kg of items over a maximum distance of 20 km. The SF Fangzhou X8 was used to deliver necessities and operationalise disinfection campaigns across districts in Shanghai like Jinshan, which lacked volunteers. The use of these drones allowed medical officials to lessen human contact.

On 5 April 2022 for instance, approximately 1200 antigen test kits were transferred from the East China UAV Base for SF Fangzhou X8 drones to a centralised quarantine site within 20 minutes. And from the early days of the pandemic, Zhuanqiao town residents in Shanghai's Minhang district utilised drones to disseminate information to residents about the availability of free nucleic acid tests, saving manpower in the process. 

Besides flying drones, rolling drones also featured heavily in the Shanghai lockdown.

A delivery drone, transporting samples to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus, is seen in flight to a coronavirus testing facility in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, on 24 May 2022. (AFP)
A delivery drone, transporting samples to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus, is seen in flight to a coronavirus testing facility in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, on 24 May 2022. (AFP)

Not only that, firefighters utilised drones to pass medicines to residents without human contact. The Xuhui District fire department, for instance, dispatched pharmaceutical drugs to areas in the vicinity, and the Shanghai fire department publicly released videos of their personnel operating a drone by remote control to deliver orange-marked packs of daily necessities through the windows of residential blocks.

Even donations provided by other provinces have been transported into Shanghai using drones. For instance, East China UAV Base in Jinshan Industrial Zone dispatched two drones delivering 20 kg of rice and vegetables donated by Hebei province to the village of Baowei on 7 April 2022.

Besides flying drones, rolling drones also featured heavily in the Shanghai lockdown. These unmanned aircraft can reportedly carry three to four times as much weight as a human individual delivery driver. Rolling drones were used to disinfect hospital grounds. For instance, a 28-robot disinfecting team was deployed to the Shanghai New International Expo Center in the Pudong New Area, which was designated as the city's biggest makeshift quarantine zone.

... a major challenge in promoting the greater use of robotics and automation will be Covid-19’s economic impact on many firms and their capacity to spend on smart technology systems.

Workers in protective suits disinfect a closed residential area during lockdown, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Shanghai, China, 18 May 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Workers in protective suits disinfect a closed residential area during lockdown, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Shanghai, China, 18 May 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)

As the drones and robots became increasingly deployed, China’s determination to keep robot production going was clear during the lockdown. Siasun, one of China’s largest robot manufacturers, quarantined its 91 workers at its Shanghai plant during the lockdown, maintaining a "closed-loop" system to meet production schedules. 

Technological leapfrogging 

Since 2020, Chinese venture capitalists in the robotics field have projected an increase in demand for robots in China, sparked off in late January 2020 when the virus started proliferating in the country. However, a major challenge in promoting the greater use of robotics and automation will be Covid-19’s economic impact on many firms and their capacity to spend on smart technology systems.

Other possible challenges are not unlike those experienced in other countries such as the replacement of human jobs by machines, further decrease in human contact and the loss of the human touch and interactivity, etc. 

But there is no doubt that drone utilisation in Shanghai has shown their practical application in everyday lives in China and it is likely to stay post-Covid, performing assistive duties like delivering medicine and food (even for fast food restaurant delivery orders).

In fact, it will be possible to see a greater coexistence between humans and drones in Shanghai and other large cities in China in general in the near future. Perhaps one of the harbingers of this change is Tianjin’s use of drones to perform a light show for Children’s Day on 31 May.

... machines have helped some in the community weather adversity by taking on human activities during the lockdown. In this sense, Industry 4.0 may really be getting the push it needs by passing this stress test.

A courier hands parcels through a closed gate of a residential compound where delivery workers are not allowed to enter, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Beijing, China, 22 May 2022. (Martin Pollard/Reuters)
A courier hands parcels through a closed gate of a residential compound where delivery workers are not allowed to enter, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Beijing, China, 22 May 2022. (Martin Pollard/Reuters)

Going forward, smart technologies can play a role in enabling more convenient lifestyles and can be a strong growth area in the economy with more venture tech investments and industrial production. 

To a certain extent, machines have helped some in the community weather adversity by taking on human activities during the lockdown. In this sense, Industry 4.0 may really be getting the push it needs by passing this stress test.

It is difficult to gauge scientifically their usefulness in the anti-pandemic efforts, given that this is an extraordinary and not a controlled experimental situation. There is also insufficient data for such analysis (including for example both physiological and psychological reactions to robotic use). But from the perspective of the authorities at least, it appears to have partly ameliorated some of their logistical needs.  

An initial version of this article was first published as an East Asian Institute Background Brief.

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