How Wilder Systems is automating rapid COVID-19 tests

This automated COVID-19 testing system was developed in less than five months. | Credit: Wilder Systems

A lack of testing has been one of the biggest challenges to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing facilities often have a shortage of personnel to analyze samples and provide results. Throughout 2020, Americans were turned away from testing centers. Rapid testing is becoming vital to mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Austin, Texas-based Wilder Systems and the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute are hoping collaborative robots can play a role in solving this shortage. They built a robotics system to automate rapid COVID-19 testing, which could enable more people to be tested and receive their results sooner.

The Wilder Dx system uses a saliva-based test, or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) protocol, based on the Yale developed SalivaDirect method. The system contains a 7-axis cobot arm from FANUC, robotic liquid handlers for collection tube plating, PCR testing prep, a RT-qPCR analyzer, a hazardous waste bin, and control software. A technician starts the testing process by putting the sample into a test tube. The robotic system then processes it.

A typical testing lab can run about three cycles a day of 94 samples per an eight-hour shift, or 280 tests per day. This robotics system can run continuously for 24 hours and run up to 2,000 samples per day with the same number of staff and PCR equipment, resulting in a 7x increase. Tests performed with the system in Austin guarantee results to patients within 24 hours.

The system was developed in less than five months. Nearly $600,000 in CARES Act funding was awarded to Wilder Systems and Pittsburgh-based ARM on July 6.

“Robots are clearly being recognized as a highly valuable technology for COVID-19 remediation, be it in sanitation, personal protective equipment (PPE) production, or testing,” said ARM CEO Ira Moskowitz. “The robotic system developed by Wilder Systems, through ARM’s project funding program, is a critical component to helping the United States manage and mitigate the virus.”

Organizations and individuals in the Austin area who are interested in COVID-19 testing can sign-up here.

“The team did a tremendous job in executing the mission to rapidly test for COVID-19 with robotics, and at such a breakneck pace,” said Wilder Systems CEO Will Wilder. “Working alongside ARM was pivotal, and we are thrilled to now be taking our innovations to market both here in Texas and across the country during this important juncture.”

In September 2020, ARM selected nine technical projects to help U.S. industry recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Department of Defense, which is providing funding, identified areas of urgency including diagnostics, medical care and countermeasures, non-medical personal protective equipment, and other supplies

COVID-19 has accelerated demand for robotics in supply chain and healthcare applications. Robotics suppliers switched from citing labor shortages to the need for social distancing as a rationale for adopting automation.