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Fighting COVID-19 with Robotics: The Rise of the Germ-Killing 'Roomba' Bots

The robotics industry has been providing systems for use in healthcare for decades, but the advent of the pandemic has inspired a new generation of roboticists to take on the vexing challenge of disinfecting hospital environments. One of the more promising innovations: autonomous robots that can roll like a Roomba through operating theatres and patient rooms and irradiate all critical surfaces with enough ultraviolet light to kill viruses and bacteria.

Danish company UVD Robots, a leader in this market, has been shipping its namesake UV disinfection robots to hospitals since 2018, but the pandemic accelerated demand, and UVD scaled up deployments overnight. The company shipped hundreds of its robots to China in February and hundreds more to Europe in March. The company's CEO, Per Juul Nielsen, told IEEE Spectrum that his company is sending more as fast as it can.

UVD was the result of a collaboration between Odense University Hospital and Blue Ocean Robotics to commercialize robotic-based UV disinfection solutions for hospitals. The company's flagship robot comprises a mobile base equipped with multiple lidar sensors and an array of UV lamps mounted on top. The robot scans the room using its sensors and creates a digital map, which users—mainly janitorial staff—annotate, indicating the places where the robot should stop to perform disinfecting tasks. The robot emits powerful short-wavelength ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light with enough energy to destroy the DNA or RNA of any microorganisms exposed to them.

The UVD robots are priced at between US $80,000 and $90,000—relatively affordable for medical equipment. (A single state-of-the-art MRI machine can cost more than US $3 million.)

The "germ-zapping" LightStrike robots from Texas-based Xenex Disinfection Services have been deployed in more than 500 healthcare facilities, the company says, including the Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson, Stanford, USC, and HonorHealth. The portable robot uses a pulsed xenon UV light system, and it's designed to disinfect a typical patient or procedure room in 10-15 minutes without warm-up or cool-down times. Operated by the hospital cleaning staff, it can be used in any department and in any unit within a healthcare facility, including isolation rooms, operating rooms, general patient care rooms, contact precaution areas, emergency rooms, restrooms and public spaces.

Xenex recently announced that will be equipping its with AT&T IoT connectivity, which will provide data Xenex and hospitals will use to optimize robot performance, reduce healthcare costs, "and optimize efforts to avoid infections as they work to provide additional levels of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic," the company said.

"The data we receive from the robots is essential to our epidemiologists, researchers, and engineering team," said Xenex CTO Paul Froutan, in a statement. "Our ability to receive the data quickly and know that it is accurate is of utmost importance. It helps us analyze how our customers' disinfection programs are performing, which can have a dramatic impact on their ability to reduce their infection rates."

Xenex said orders for its LightStrike robots has jumped 400% in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same quarter in 2019.

Irish robotics company Akara recently unveiled Violet, an ultraviolet-light-emitting robot designed to kill viruses, bacteria, and harmful germs. Irish hospitals are currently testing the robot for coronavirus disinfection of radiology exam room.

The company was spun out of the Robotics and Innovation Lab (RAIL) at Trinity College in Dublin by Conor McGinn, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at and co-leader of RAIL and a small team of hardware and software engineers. They built Violet on the open source TurtleBot2 platform and more than a year of research on UV light disinfection technology conducted at the university. The Irish Health Service has fast-tracked its development, stating that it has great potential to help in the fight against Covid-19.

"This system could reduce dependency on the use of chemical-based solutions, which may be effective but requires rooms to be vacated for several hours during sterilization, making them impractical for many parts of the hospital," said Dr McGinn told The Irish Times.

Devices like Violet can greatly reduce dependency on the use of chemical-based solutions and manual disinfectant methods, the company points out, which are resource intensive, risk the safety of health workers, are prone to human error, and don't disinfect the air. Plus, some high-tech equipment cannot be disinfected using chemicals.

The pandemic has highlighted a number of potential use cases for robots that are likely to drive considerable growth in that market, analyst at ABI Research predicted in a recent whitepaper. One of the most popular use cases the deployment of mobile unmanned platforms with UV light to disinfect facilities. Prove use cases will propel the overall mobile robotics market to US$23 billion by 2021, the whitepaper states.

"Crises shift perceptions on what is possible regarding investment and transformative action on the part of both private and government actors," said Rian Whitton, senior analyst at ABI Research, in a statement. "By the time the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, robots will be mainstreamed across a range of applications and markets."

Once they prove themselves in healthcare environments, these special-purpose robots are all but certain to appear in shopping malls, airports, subway terminals, prisons, hotels, military facilities, and a range of public spaces.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of Converge360.com sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at jwaters@converge360.com.


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