Autonomous robots are helping kill coronavirus in hospitals

UVD Robots is a Danish company making robots that are able to disinfect patient rooms and operating theaters in hospitals. They’re able to disinfect pretty much anything you point them at—each robot is a mobile array of powerful short wavelength ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights that emit enough energy to literally shred the DNA or RNA of any microorganisms that have the misfortune of being exposed to them.

The company’s robots have been operating in China for the past two or three weeks, and UVD Robots CEO Per Juul Nielsen says they are sending more to China as fast as they can. “The initial volume is in the hundreds of robots; the first ones went to Wuhan where the situation is the most severe. We’re shipping every week—they’re going air freight into China because they’re so desperately needed.” The goal is to supply the robots to over 2,000 hospitals and medical facilities in China.

UV disinfecting technology has been around for something like a century, and it’s commonly used to disinfect drinking water. You don’t see it much outside of fixed infrastructure because you have to point a UV lamp directly at a surface for a couple of minutes in order to be effective, and since it can cause damage to skin and eyes, humans have to be careful around it. Mobile UVC disinfection systems are a bit more common—UV lamps on a cart that a human can move from place to place to disinfect specific areas, like airplanes. For large environments like a hospital with dozens of rooms, operating UV systems manually can be costly and have mixed results—humans can inadvertently miss certain areas, or not expose them long enough.

UVD Robots spent four years developing a robotic UV disinfection system, which it started selling in 2018. The robot consists of a mobile base equipped with multiple lidar sensors and an array of UV lamps mounted on top. To deploy a robot, you drive it around once using a computer. The robot scans the environment using its lidars and creates a digital map. You then annotate the map indicating all the rooms and points the robot should stop to perform disinfecting tasks.

After that, the robot relies on simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) to navigate, and it operates completely on its own. It’ll travel from its charging station, through hallways, up and down elevators if necessary, and perform the disinfection without human intervention before returning to recharge. For safety, the robot operates when people are not around, using its sensors to detect motion and shutting the UV lights off if a person enters the area.