Covid-19 has helped robots prove their worth in hospitals

The robot arrived just a few days after Christine Kiernan, an orthopedic surgeon at Tullamore Hospital in Ireland, was diagnosed with COVID-19. She’d arranged for Violet, an autonomous ultraviolet cleaning machine, to start trials at Tullamore to help the hospital adapt to staff shortages caused by the pandemic. But on Violet’s first day of work, Kiernan was already laid up in bed.
 
 “It was awful, I’m not going to lie,” Kiernan, who’s since fully recovered from the disease, tells The Verge. “Thankfully I wasn’t critically unwell, but you do just feel like crap for weeks. Your energy’s gone for. And I have two kiddies, babies really, and there’s no social distancing you can do from a one-year-old and a two-year-old.”
 
 The unfortunate timing of her diagnosis aside, Kiernan’s experience with Violet was something of a revelation. Like many health care workers around the world, her job has become significantly more challenging with the arrival of COVID-19. The normal busyness of hospital life has been supplemented by new complications: staff shortages, demands for personal protective equipment, and rigorous cleaning regimes to keep the virus at bay.
 
 But machines like Violet, says Kiernan, have helped with these problems, proving their worth in a time of crisis. And like other doctors The Verge spoke to, Kiernan says that when the pandemic is over, the robots should stay.
 
 “The reaction from staff, and anyone who’s seen it really, has been so positive,” says Kiernan of Violet. “They love that we’re embracing technology, but also that the results it’s achieving are exceeding what we can do manually. We’re protecting the staff, we’re protecting the patients, and we’re protecting the cleaners.”
 
 Violet is the creation of Akara Robotics, a Dublin-based firm that builds robots providing social support in care homes. When the pandemic hit, the firm began adapting an open-source machine named TurtleBot to work as a mobile disinfectant unit using ultraviolet light. And in just 24 hours, it had created a working prototype for tests in hospitals like Tullamore.
 
 Like all UV cleaning robots, Violet is essentially a huge lightbulb on wheels. It trundles around, emitting ultraviolet light powerful enough to slice apart the genetic material inside viruses. UV light is known to be effective against many coronaviruses, and studies suggest it works just as well on SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus strain responsible for the current pandemic. As a result, autonomous UV cleaning machines have been deployed not only in hospitals, but a variety of high-traffic spaces where infection is a risk, including airports, hotels, and food banks.
 
 These machines have become the vanguard of pandemic automation, with sales for UV cleaning robots booming in recent months. One US robotics firm Xenex tells The Verge its sales of its UV cleaning robots are up 600 percent compared to 2019. “We began increasing production in December when we started hearing reports from international colleagues about what was happening in China,” Xenex CEO Morris Miller told The Verge over email. “We’ve seen a surge in orders from healthcare.”
 
 In Tullamore, Violet sterilized the hospital’s CT scanning room, a key link in the chain of coronavirus treatment. As a relatively small, 250-bed hospital, Tullamore only has two CT scanners. But as these scans are one of the most effective ways to diagnose COVID-19, it’s essential the machine is always ready for use. That means speedy cleaning is a must.
 
 It takes human cleaners an hour to carefully disinfect the CT scanning room, says Kiernan, wiping down the equipment and surfaces. So when the pandemic hit, and the room had to be cleaned after each use, “a machine that used to be able to do 30 scans a day is down to seven.”
 
 Violet, by comparison, can clean the room in just 15 minutes. It uses machine vision powered by Intel’s Movidius AI chips to map and navigate its surrounding environment. Though, as Kiernan notes, humans still have to wipe down the “nooks and crannies the robot can’t get to, like behind the door handles.” But by cutting cleaning times down from 1 hour to 15 minutes, the hospital’s capacity for CT scans increases four times over.
 
 That sort of extra headroom, delivered while reducing risks to human cleaners, is too good to ignore, says Kiernan. Tullamore is now expanding its trials of Violet to cover more spaces within the hospital.

 

 

 

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