The white robot with a blue surgical cap and cylindrical eyes glides through the halls of the hospital with the ease of a veteran nurse.
Although Cira-03 can perform a range of medical tests, its biggest asset might be what it cannot do: get sick and transmit a virus to other patients.
“This invention is very important during the pandemic,” Abu Bakr el-Mihi, manager of the hospital north of Cairo where the robot was tested, told Reuters. “It reduces our staff infection rate to zero since everything is automated.”
Mahmoud el-Komy, the 27-year-old engineer who created the remote-controlled robot, said his goal was to build something that would improve medical outcomes but also put patients at ease.
“I tried to make the robot seem more human, so that the patient doesn’t fear it, so they don’t feel like a box is walking in on them,” he told Reuters. “There has been a positive response from patients. They saw the robot and weren’t afraid. On the contrary, there is more trust in this because the robot is more precise than humans.”
El-Komy’s third incarnation of the robot showed that it could administer genetic COVID-19 swab tests, echocardiograms and X-rays. It took patients’ and visitors’ temperatures and displayed results on a screen embedded in its chest.
“The robot can conduct all of these tests accurately while the doctor is in another room or outside the hospital entirely,” he said.
El-Komy lives in the Nile River delta city of Tanta, 94 kilometers north of Cairo. He developed three versions of Cira on his own with available parts and a 3D printer. He estimated his cost at about $4,700.
Cira-01, the prototype, was limited. Cira-02 had better thermal sensors and could communicate verbally.
For Cira-03, el-Komy added a robotic arm and improved facial recognition. Artificial intelligence lets the robot count people in a room and determine whether they are maintaining proper social distance. It can verbally tell people who aren’t wearing face masks to do so.
El-Komy started working on his invention in March 2020, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. The first two versions took about six weeks to create. The third took eight weeks.
“I thought about creating a robot because many medical staff around the world died as a result of direct contact with coronavirus patients,” el-Komy told Egyptian newspaper The Seventh Day.
The country is in the midst of a second wave of COVID-19. After recording 138,062 cases and 7,631 deaths last year, Egypt has had 66,903 cases and 4,532 deaths as of April 4, 2021, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Claiming Cira could reduce direct contact between staff and patients by 90%, el-Komy reached out to the nearest hospital, Dar Al-Qamah, in June 2020, proposing a trial.
The hospital manager is convinced.
“If we suspect that someone has COVID-19, the robot takes the blood sample. No doctor comes near them,” Abu Bakr el-Mihi told Reuters in November 2020. “If a patient is under quarantine in my hospital, the robot can perform ultrasounds and things like that.”
El-Komy and Cira-03 won a silver medal for engineering at the Geneva International Invention Fair in March 2021.
Now his sights are set higher.
He hopes to build Cira-04 for mass production in the near future and see it in every Egyptian hospital.
“I dream that Cira reaches and benefits all of humanity and leaves a mark in the field of artificial intelligence,” he told the American University on Cairo’s television station. “Not only will there be a robot in every house in the future, but in all establishments. Robots will be everywhere.”