Robot manufacturers are joining the fight against the deadly coronavirus by creating autonomous models that can navigate through hospitals and other large facilities, assisting human cleaning crews by disinfecting rooms and other surfaces where virus particles can spread among an infected population.
One disinfectant robot that is seeing increased deployment during the effort to slow the spread of Covid-19 is the UVD model, made by Danish manufacturer Blue Ocean Robotics as a tool to assist human cleaning staff in facilities like hospitals, office spaces, shopping malls, schools, airports, and production facilities.
Chinese hospitals have recently ordered more than 2,000 UVD robots, and the units now operate in more than 40 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and the U.S., using ultraviolet light (UV-C) to kill harmful microorganisms, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The UVD robot moves autonomously around patient rooms and operating theaters, shining the right amount of UV-C light needed to kill specific viruses and bacteria, and killing 99.99% of all viruses and bacteria in a typical patient room within 10 minutes, IFR said.
“We are now helping solve one of the biggest problems of our time, preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria with a robot that saves lives,” Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics, said in a release. “The immediate demand has increased a lot with the outbreak of Covid-19. Existing customers buy many more units than before, and many new customers are ordering the UVD robots to fight coronavirus and other harmful microorganisms.”
Chinese retail giant JD.com is also developing robots it says can prevent the spread of coronavirus, launching a project in its logistics innovation lab—known as JD-X—to design three types of robots to handle disinfection and inspection tasks.
In an announcement yesterday, JD said it would develop and produce the three technologies through a strategic partnership with GREE, a Chinese state-owned manufacturing enterprise. The deal is intended to combine JD’s strength in autonomous driving with GREE’s experience in product manufacturing and supply chain management.
The units will include indoor disinfectant robots—intended for use in hospitals, airports, shopping malls, office buildings, and libraries—and outdoor disinfectant robots, built for jobs in industrial parks and school campuses. Both types of disinfection robots can automatically spray disinfectant gas and liquid or clean surfaces with ultraviolet lamps, running 24 hours a day to increase the efficiency of traditional approaches, JD said.
The third type of robot is designed to reduce human-to-human contact by scanning crowds for sick people and issuing a warning if its real-time, infrared sensor detects a person with abnormal body temperature. “We plan to sell these robots on JD’s platform when they are produced in bulk and leverage JD and GREE’s mutual sales network to continue doing our part to fight COVID-19,” Jun Xiao, president of JD’s logistics innovation lab, said in a release. The move follows JD’s earlier efforts to deploy mobile robots to sustain its parcel delivery operations in the city of Wuhan, China, where residents lived for months under strict quarantine orders after doctors determined that the coronavirus had likely started in the region’s wild animal food markets.
Additional robotic cleaners are also available from China-based Taimi Robotics Technology Co. Ltd and from Los Angeles-based Germ Falcon, which makes a UV platform for disinfecting aircraft, according to the tech market advisory firm ABI Research.
The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted new use cases for mobile robotics to disinfect, monitor, and surveille certain areas, and to handle and deliver materials, ABI said. While the pandemic represents an economic “disaster” for robotics vendors building solutions for developed markets in manufacturing, industry, and the supply chain, it could also open up new markets for robot providers targeting markets closer to government, such as health, security, and defense, the firm said.
“Crises shift perceptions on what is possible regarding investment and transformative action on the part of both private and government actors. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, robots will be mainstreamed across a range of applications and markets,” Rian Whitton, senior analyst at ABI Research, said in a release. “Automating disinfection is a key part of maintaining health and safety and could be one of the major bright spots in the response to Covid-19.”
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Editor's note: This story was revised on April 2 to include information from ABI Research.