An autonomous robot, built by Akara Robotics, uses ultraviolet light (UV) for disinfection in hospitals.
Source: IEEE Spectrum
UV disinfection is one of the few areas where autonomous robots can be immediately and uniquely helpful during the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these robots to fulfill demand right now, and although companies are working hard to build them, it takes a substantial amount of time to develop the hardware, software, operational knowledge, and integration experience required to make a robotic disinfection system work in a hospital.
Conor McGinn, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Trinity College in Dublin and coleader of the Robotics and Innovation Lab (RAIL), has pulled together a small team of hardware and software engineers who’ve managed to get a UV disinfection robot into hospital testing within a matter of just a few weeks. They made it happen in such a short amount of time by building on previous research, collaborating with hospitals directly, and leveraging a development platform: the TurtleBot 2.
Over the last few years, RAIL has been researching mobile social robots for elder-care applications, and during their pilot testing, they came to understand how big of a problem infection can be in environments like nursing homes. This was well before COVID-19, but it was (and still is) one of the leading causes of hospitalization for nursing home residents. Most places just wipe down surfaces with disinfectant sometimes, but these facilities have many surfaces (like fabrics) that aren’t as easy to clean, and with people coming in and out all the time, anyone with a compromised immune system is always at risk.
The researchers thought about developing this concept further, but after a bit of poking around, it turned out that while there was plenty of data showing that UV light does kill viruses and bacteria, there wasn’t a lot of useful design information, like what kind of light you need, how powerful it has to be, and how long you have to illuminate difference surfaces from specific distances. McGinn says that as a sort of a side project, his group started working with microbiologists at Trinity to figure out all of these parameters.
It turns out that radiology is the best place for the robot to work right now, for a variety of reasons. First, radiology rooms tend to be small, uncluttered, and windowless, which makes robot navigation easy. Second, since the imaging machines are expensive, they’re often cleaned by radiologists, which not only takes up time that specialists could be using to help patients, but also puts the specialists themselves at risk. And finally, because the machines need cleaning after each COVID patient, traditional cleaning methods reduce the daily capacity of the machine by a factor of five or six. If you can drop a cleaning robot in there that speeds things up so that you can sneak in even one more patient per day for a CT scan, that robot will quickly pay for itself.
A video of robot disinfecting a radiologic room, in Ireland, with UV. The video is run in a speed 8 times faster than normal.