As countries around the globe continue the fight against coronavirus by instituting everything from stay-at-home guidelines to full-on national lockdowns, the Republic of Tunisia has adopted an unusual tactic to enforce physical distancing – robots that interrogate pedestrians. While the number of coronavirus cases in some hard-hit regions have begun to stabilize, even decline, others remain on the rise, and countries are trying a host of novel approaches to help slow the spread.
Roughly the size of Washington state with a population of approximately 11.5 million, Tunisia instituted a national lockdown in late March. Its relatively extreme measures include the shuttering of schools and universities along with bars and cafes; the closure of land and maritime borders; the suspension of international flights; and a nightly 12-hour curfew, enforced by police and military personnel… and now, robots.
According to The Independent, the robots now patrolling Tunisian streets are the product of a local manufacturer, Enova Robotics. Called the P-Guard, design-wise they look like something George Lucas and company might have left behind after filming wrapped on Star Wars, but according to their creator, they’re packed with state-of-the-art sensors to ensure reliable autonomous operation. Able to travel off-road and in mountainous terrain, along with city sidewalks and streets, the P-Guard utilizes an infrared camera array to assist with navigation and communicates over either Wi-Fi or 4G. Per video footage online, the P-Guard is currently patrolling Tunisia’s streets, stopping to allow remote officials viewing the robots’ video feeds to interrogate pedestrians about why they’ve left their home.
Would More Robots Help Combat COVID-19?
The site of a boxy, self-driving robot policing unnaturally quiet city streets might call to mind a dystopian Sci-Fi scenario, but amazingly it’s just another part of the temporary new normal. It’s not hard to imagine options like drone deliveries a la Amazon‘s still-in-development Prime Air being popular at a time when large swathes of the population are actively trying to avoid any physical contact. Whether or not a system like the one Tunisia has employed with the P-Guard could work in a country like the US is questionable.
Tunisia’s lockdown is by all accounts just that – a strict closure of much of the country, within and without. To maintain such a relatively hard-line position while trying to keep human interaction to a minimum, employing something along the lines of the P-Guard makes some sense. In the US, where the coronavirus response is still very much ad hoc, with few if any strictly enforcing stay-at-home orders with arrests or even fines, the P-Guard would likely be little more than a very novel loudspeaker, and a probable target of expensive-to-remedy vandalism. Concerns over surveillance and privacy are still very much on the public’s mind in the US during the pandemic – perhaps even more so, as data is being requested and shared as a way to track infections.
Limiting human contact is proving far and away to be the best method of blunting the spread of coronavirus – so in that sense, Tunisia’s use of the P-Guard as another method of enforcing physical distancing shouldn’t be discounted. However, its effectiveness where anything less than a full-on lockdown has been instituted seems questionable, as a disembodied voice barking orders through a robot’s loudspeaker is more likely to result in memes than compliance.
Source: The Independent