December 2, 2023

Non-partisan and pluralist communication and debate platform

Home » Content » The incredible story of the 5 friends who brought anti-Covid-19 robots to Spain
Five friends began to think on March 13 what they could do to fight the coronavirus, and just three weeks later they managed to bring to Spain the great technological hope

Ruth Ugalde – 04/11/2020

The four robots and all the equipment they need has been donated by private companies. EC

It was March 13. One day before the Government decreed the state of alarm, five friends set out to tackle one of the missions that gave the Spanish Health the most joy and hope in the darkest days of the coronavirus: bringing four super-robots that allow for the analysis of massive tests of Covid19, the true bottleneck that our country is currently suffering in the necessary work of detection and prevention of the virus. Each robot can do 2,400 PCR tests daily, so the four units will be able to perform almost 70,000 analyzes per week.

Rocío Martínez, a Spanish researcher working at King’s College in London, was the one who discovered to the rest of the group these robots and the great differential advantage they offer compared to the rest: they are ‘open’ (opensource), and therefore valid for test of any commercial brand, and adaptable to any protocol, something critical, considering that these vary from one hospital to another.

On the other side of the screen, confined but not still, Andreu Veà, professor, researcher and internet pioneer; Javier Colàs, President of Medtronic Spain for a quarter of a century and now Director of Innovation at Esade; Sandra Figaredo, senior public affairs consultant in Llorente and Cuenca; and María Parga, BME board member and president of the Alastria consortium, a non-profit association that fosters the digital economy through the development of Blockchain; she is the common link between the five.

Rocío explained that there was a company in the United States, Opentrons, that has these machines, but the factory where they are produced is located in China. A challenge to achieve not only to finance the purchase, but also to bring the equipment from the other side of the world and distribute it in the four hospitals that, according to their identification, need it most: the Barcelona Clinic and the Vall d’Hebrón, in Catalonia; La Paz and the Carlos III Health Institute, in Madrid.

When the possibility of approaching this project from the public side was analyzed, they found a mountain of problems: Health Services needed to open an extraordinary budget, and that required time that Spain does not have; and if one went to an autonomous community, the scope of the project, which was intended to be national, was limited regionally … The only solution was to obtain private financing. They named the project, ‘Covichain Robots’, and got to work.

The price of each of these robots amounts to 100,000 euros and they needed to immediately convince someone to put 400,000 euros over the board. “The whole project has been possible thanks to our network of contacts”, recalls Sandra, who is still surprised when she recalls how the purchase of the equipment was managed in such a short time. The Llorente and Cuenca public affairs department contacted Ismael Clemente and Miguel Ollero, CEO and Director General of Merlin Properties, respectively, and told them about the project. From the very beginning they said, “open the mail, there you have it”.

In just three weeks, five friends have managed to mobilize the Government and some of the largest companies in the country to bring critical technology.

Now they needed someone, “free, because we do not have an Euro , this is all altruistic”, to allow for a plane to bring the equipment. They did not hesitate, they called Inditex, and the fashion giant, which from the first moment has put all its logistics at the service of the country, only asked them “what do you need?” The company was in charge of picking up the equipment in Shenzhen, the Chinese Silicon Valley, where Opentrons had the robots, and moved them to Shanghai to board the plane that would bring them to Spain.

“It has been an incredible collaboration”, recalls Sandra, unable to put figures to the aid of the Zara owner. “How much can it cost just to charter a plane? I just don’t know how tell you. And they took care of everything in China”, she adds. It was at this point in the mission that the most tense moments were experienced. In the move in China, there was a moment when they said that the load would have to be divided [send three now and one later] and the promoters asked please no, so that they all arrived together, and in the end it was arranged. A problem that now, with the teams already in Spain, is even relativized; but that then, halfway through the mission, with the time difference, the distance, the nerves …, generated moments of tension.

Nerves that were not hidden, since the five promoters informed companies and hospitals daily about the process, which ended up turning the entire team into a small ‘family’ that grew with each new obstacle. The next was how to get computers that would allow robots to communicate with each other. Although we talk colloquially about four robots, in reality they are four stations made up of eight machines each, and each machine needs its own computer equipment. “We asked Apple Spain for it, because Opentrons told us that the connection was fundamentally through MAC”. And like the other companies, the company only asked where to send them.

In all cases, when they asked for help from a company, they sent the project in writing, clearly explaining the significance of its success, and “everyone saw that it was reliable and that it was needed”. At this very moment in which Spain finds itself, it is critical to have a technology that allows processing 2,400 tests per day in each unit, almost 10,000 in total, exponentially multiplying the speed of these tests, and freeing the staff of the microbiology departments from these hospitals, professionals who are directly exposed to contagion.

Mass tests are the basis of the future strategy against coronavirus, by identifying who has been infected, and who has not, and from here just beginning to establish a predictive information system of how many people can be infected and how many are immune, thus opening the door to future digital certificates that demonstrate who can go to work and who must remain confined … But that was the future. Before, you had to get the robots to Spain.

Once the Apple computers were obtained, the following obstacle arose: getting 4 engineers to be in charge of the programming of each team, because Opentrons, due to the exceptional circumstances we are experiencing, could not send theirs, as it usually does with each purchase. They also saw that they needed some company to provide them with the peripheral equipment that these stations would need. Then Manpower and  Telefónica entered the scene.

Merlin has financed the purchase; Inditex has put its logistics; Apple and Telefónica, computer equipment; Ikea, tables; Manpower has hired engineers…

In addition to hiring the engineers, Manpower also decided to pay their salaries, since, although they volunteered, it was decided that they should be paid. “This is a very specific profile, specialized in robotics and Python programming, which is not exactly cheap. But it is that, in addition, they are going to work in zone zero… We could not accept that they worked as volunteers”, recalls Sandra.

All this work was done in Spain while the robots were on their way from China, which led to having the computer equipment before the desired machines. And, again, generosity opened the next door. On this occasion, it was a small businessman, a friend of one of the computer scientists, who made an industrial unit available where they could begin to configure the equipment while the robots arrived. “Opentrons have been amazed at what our engineers are doing, we have top-notch professionals in this country”.

These robots allow to analyze 2,400 tests a day.

The Executive has also been aware of this project from practically the beginning. The Carlos III Health Institute, under the Ministry of Science and Innovation, and beneficiary of one of the robots, was the one who authorized all operations; while the Treasury and the Interior have also been pending in case any incident occurs at customs.

“We wanted to convey how a project that helps all of society and that has public-private collaboration can be carried out from civil society, because three administrations have been involved here: the central one, through Carlos III Institute; Madrid, through La Paz; and Catalonia, through Vall d’Hebrón and the Clinic”.

We wanted to convey how a project that helps everyone and that has public-private collaboration can be carried out from civil society

This sum of forces allowed that, when on Friday April 3, at 2.20 pm, more than five tons of machines landed in Madrid, everything was ready. With the robots already here, only the last touches were missing, such as the tables that Ikea donated to a hospital that needed adequate furniture to install its robot, or the transport tasks that Renfe facilitated so that the computer equipment arrived in Barcelona.

 “We are now working on purchasing four other robots, which will be available from April 13. We also have to write a letter to the presidents of all the companies that have supported us”, say the promoters, who hope that this story will help people realize that, instead of arguing, it is better to join and see that by joining you can achieve everything”. Look what we have done, we who are five mindundis (unimportants)“.


View all posts

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *