In just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has crossed borders and oceans, killing thousands, sickening millions, and forcing millions more to reckon with the economic and personal chaos of closures and lockdowns.
Yet as the global infection count rises, the crisis has also given rise to acts of ingenuity. The pandemic has set off a global race for both an effective vaccine and for the accurate, rapid-response tests that will be necessary before workplaces can safely reopen. Vaccines and tests are essential, but they’re not the only front on which to combat the virus.
In the face of an urgent threat, scientists have pivoted from other projects and pooled their resources toward breakthroughs aimed at reducing infection and protecting lives. Chief among those are tools that make for cleaner, safer places for patients and those treating them, and that alleviate the crushing demands placed on healthcare workers during this crisis.
There’s no magic bullet to halt the advance of COVID-19, but many smaller acts of creativity and collaboration can save lives.
The Irish robot
Conor McGinn is a roboticist and professor at Trinity College Dublin. McGinn and his colleagues at Trinity’s Robotics and Innovation Lab focus on figuring out how robots can best assist aging individuals in care homes.
The signature product from the lab and its spinoff company, Akara Robotics, is Stevie, a 4-foot 7-inch tall social robot whose primary function is alleviating loneliness. In trials in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, the robot has been programmed to tell stories, call bingo numbers, lead sing-alongs, and other morale- and community-building exercises in a group care setting.
Its team of engineers have also worked closely with care home staff to understand what additional functions could be added to the robot to boost patient safety. In July 2019, well before the first reports of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, the team began exploring whether Stevie might be able to ward off infections too.
The team has a longstanding partnership at Knollwood Military Retirement Community in Washington, D.C. A director there had pointed out that acquired infections are one of the greatest threats to health inside care homes. With that in mind, McGinn approached Michael Beckett, a postdoctoral research fellow in Trinity’s microbiology department, to discuss whether it would be possible to equip the robot with an ultraviolet light feature that would be powerful enough to kill harmful pathogens, yet safe to use alongside residents and staff.
Ultraviolet light at wavelengths between 200 and 280 nanometers, also known as UV-C light, “causes DNA either to change shape, or acts like molecular scissors,” says Beckett, . “It will cut that genetic material and cause little nicks in it.”
Complex organisms and even some bacteria can repair those small lacerations themselves. Viruses, which are molecularly much simpler than bacteria, don’t stand a chance.
UV-C light is a long-established disinfectant in health care settings. Over the last 10 years, hospitals around the world have adopted machines that sterilize rooms and equipment with powerful blasts of light. Because UV-C can also cause sunburn and the cell mutations that lead to skin cancer, most machines currently in use can only work safely and effectively in rooms empty of people, making them impractical for use in high-traffic areas like waiting rooms and other common spaces.
The Stevie robot already had sensors allowing it to navigate independently and stop when it detects the presence of a person. A directed light source that automatically shut down when it detected motion nearby could be a useful feature. Akara toyed with the idea of putting a disinfectant UV-C feature on Stevie, but eventually dropped it when they couldn’t find a satisfactory way to integrate it into the robot’s design.
Then on Feb. 29, Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) confirmed the country’s first case of the novel coronavirus. Less than two weeks later, an elderly woman in a Dublin hospital became Ireland’s first COVID-19 casualty. The Akara team had data on how effective UV-C light was as a disinfectant, and knew how to make a relatively lightweight, nimble robot that could move effectively around humans in a busy healthcare settings. If there was ever a time worth revisiting the idea for an autonomous UV-C equipped robot, McGinn realized, this was it.
The team began drawing up plans for a new robot that would combine the navigational features they’d designed for Stevie with a UV-C light. The robot wouldn’t have any anthropomorphic features, but would be designed to work alongside humans. They would call this one Violet.
A common saying in robotics is that robots are best suited for jobs too dirty, dull, or dangerous for humans. The coronavirus outbreak is a textbook example of the last. Violet is one of many robots deployed or soon to be deployed on the front lines of the global outbreak, navigating hospitals and assisting health workers and patients with a very low risk of spreading the infection.
In China, the November emergence of COVID-19 kicked off a rush to get robot technologies to the frontlines. In March, a hospital in the pandemic’s epicenter, Wuhan, opened a new wing for coronavirus patients staffed by robots that clean, deliver food to patients, and monitor vital signs.
“As epidemics escalate, the potential roles of robotics are becoming increasingly clear,” a group of 13 researchers wrote in an editorial last month in the journal Science Robotics. They singled out several key areas where robots could make a significant difference: among them, disinfection using UV light.
“Instead of manual disinfection, which requires workforce mobilization and increases exposure risk to cleaning personnel, autonomous or remote-controlled disinfection robots could lead to cost-effective, fast, and effective disinfection,” the researchers wrote. “New generations of robots, from macro- to microscale, could be developed to navigate high-risk areas and continually work to sterilize all high-touch surfaces.”
Akara isn’t the only company working on robot cleaners. A Danish company called UVD Robots has shipped hundreds of disinfectant robots to China and elsewhere around the world since the outbreak began. Other robotics companies in China and the U.S. are redesigning existing technologies to assist with the current outbreak.
“We’re trying to do something [to help], like everyone here in China,” Keyman Guan of Shenzhen-based YouiBot told the BBC. The company, which usually makes robots for warehouse stocking and other logistics, also now produces a disinfectant robot.
Akara has focused on making Violet portable and compact enough to be able to operate in tight, crowded spaces that are otherwise hard to clean: bathrooms, waiting areas, the nooks and crannies of public transit. It also has a protective shield around the back of the light, and motion-detecting sensors so that people don’t have to vacate the area while it’s at work.
With support from Ireland’s HSE, the Violet team recently tested the robot at Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore, about 60 miles west of Dublin. They conducted tests in a room with a CT scanner, one that would be reserved for COVID-19 patients in need of chest scans if and when the hospital sees an influx of patients. It typically takes a radiographer 15 minutes to clean the room with disinfectant wipes and then another 30 to 60 minutes for the chemicals to dry and any airborne germs to dissipate, meaning that the room can only handle about one patient an hour. In tests, a Violet robot has been able to get the job done in 15 minutes, a fourfold increase in turnaround time.
Akara is looking to raise money now to build a more advanced prototype that can be tested in different settings. Under typical circumstances, the process of design, testing, and approving such a robot for hospital use could take months, if not years. This situation doesn’t have that kind of time. There’s no cutting corners when it comes to tools that could affect people’s health, but the urgency of the coronavirus crisis means that it’s better to move fast than not at all.
“Anyone who’s involved in emergency response will know this—if you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection,” epidemiologist Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, said in March of his previous experience managing outbreaks of Ebola. “Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”
There will—hopefully—be many lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis. One will be the necessity of innovation in peace times so that the right technology is ready to go when crisis strikes. If there is anything that science is certain of, it is that in an increasingly interconnected world, a global pandemic will strike again.
Weeks after the first U.S. case of Ebola was reported in 2014, the National Science Foundation and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy launched a series of workshops to explore the potential of robots to assist with tasks like waste removal, decontamination, and human burial in situations that could get human workers sick. But funding and initiative to pursue these ideas slowed after Ebola’s containment, at least in the U.S. After Trump’s inauguration, the chief role at the Office of Science and Technology Policy sat vacant until the August 2019 confirmation of meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier. The White House recently announced a partnership between major tech companies to pool supercomputing resources to fight the virus’s spread, but there has been no public discussion at the federal level of enlisting robots.
“Without sustained research efforts robots will, once again, not be ready for the next incident,” the researchers wrote in the Science Robotics editorial. “By fostering a fusion of engineering and infectious disease professionals with dedicated funding we can be ready when (not if) the next pandemic arrives.”