Autonomous Robots Armed with UV Light Join Fight Against COVID-19

Disinfecting strategies that use chemical-based cleaners put workers at risk of infection, are time consuming, drain resources, and can be impractical for frequently used rooms. Now, robots with UV lights are disinfecting public areas more efficiently and safely.


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Image credit: Acara Robotics

The CDC has recommended frequent sanitation of public areas to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But doing so puts the workers in charge of cleaning at high risk of infection themselves. In response to this challenge, innovative robotic companies are creating sanitation robots equipped with UV-C light bulbs to defend against Covid-19 and other harmful bacteria. 

UV-C light can be superior to chemical cleaners. For example, hydrogen peroxide vapors can last up to five hours in a room, making it impractical for high-turnover spaces such as hospital rooms. Some medical equipment can’t be cleaned with harsh chemicals, requiring manual cleaning. UV-C light, however, can clean a room in a fraction of that time, and it decreases the risk of infection for sanitation workers. 

UV-C light is the specific range of ultraviolet light waves that have been proven to kill viruses and bacteria, and in recent testing can safely kill airborne coronaviruses. The light, which is invisible to the human eye, causes lethal damage to the genetic material of cellular organisms and some bacteria. While UV light exposure can lead to skin cancer and other health problems, far-UVC light can be safe for humans, which could further impact UV disinfection options.

UV-C Bots on Germ Patrol

Akara Robotics, founded by researchers from Trinity College in Dublin, has been experimenting with UV-C-equipped robots. The company first created Stevie, a robot with integrated artificial intelligence, which is used to amuse and engage with residents of senior living homes. In July 2019, before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, Akara unsuccessfully attempted to integrate UV-C in Stevie. After Ireland reported its first case of COVID-19 in February, the team at Akara revisited plans to develop a robot that uses UV-C light to disinfect spaces. Based on previous robotic platforms and UV-C research, they created a robot prototype in less than a week. The result is Violet. 

Violet uses UV-C light to rid rooms of bacteria and other germs. The robot has a single tube-shaped bulb, which faces the area to be cleaned. It moves to various points in the room, stopping to shine its UV light at each stop. It is being tested in Dublin hospitals, cleaning delicate CT scanners and radiology rooms. Seeking the least disruptive way to incorporate UV-cleaning at the hospital, Violet has been tested in uncluttered, easy-to-navigate rooms. 

Violet uses motion sensors, the Intel® Movidius™ Vision Processing Unit (VPU), and a Luxonis DepthAI platform for artificial intelligence, depth, and feature tracking to reach all areas of a room and to clean surfaces. If motion is detected, the light automatically shuts off to prevent harm to humans. For larger or open areas, a metal shield can be placed on the backside of the robot to protect any bystanders behind the robot while the light is on. 

So far, Violet has proven to be faster and more thorough than a human. At Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore, outside of Dublin, radiographers typically spend up to 75 minutes to disinfect a room housing a CT scanner. That includes the time to wipe down all surfaces and wait for chemicals to dry. Violet was able to clean the room in just 15 minutes.

Akara plans to create a more robust version of Violet. Future uses could include disinfecting public spaces, schools, transportation systems, and correctional facilities. 

Light Strikes Out Covid-19

Xenex, an established robotics company based in San Antonio, TX, created a sanitation robot that uses UV light to kill germs and bacteria. The LightStrike™ Germ-Zapping™ Robots use bulbs with SureStrike 360 technology, powered by pulsed xenon ultraviolet light. Xenex bulbs use both UV-C and UV-B light. Xenex claims this extended range makes the light more efficient at killing germs and pathogens than robots powered solely by UV-C. One study found that pulsed Xenon ultraviolet light eliminated at least 70 percent more bacteria than manual cleaning alone. Xenex’s technology, which uses pulsed xenon UV light, has been proven to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Robot disinfects with UV light

Image credit: Xenex

LightStrike robots are primarily used in labs and healthcare facilities and can clean a room in about five minutes. Triple motion sensors on the sides of the robot will stop the disinfection process if activated. They are also being used to disinfect hotel rooms, aircraft, and personal protective equipment.

When the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States in January, the overarching interest was to slow the rapid spread of infection. While we await a vaccine, robots with integrated UV-C light are proving to be a solid method of prevention. Already deployed to disinfect hotel rooms, hospitals, and airplanes in a timely and effective manner, their continued and effective use will likely outlast the current pandemic. 

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