Imagine walking into a room wearing an N95 mask, unsure whether the cleaning crew has thoroughly cleaned the next piece of sensitive equipment that you are planning to use. Suddenly, you notice a robot in the room. This robot is moving around you to disinfect the surfaces and the air all around you.
It introduces itself as Violet. You have the urge to shake its hand. Instead, it moves to turn its light away from you. You are not in a sci-fi movie. This robot disinfects the surfaces and the air that you breathe.
Conor McGinn, CEO, and Co-Founder of Akara Robotics says, “UV Light has been proven for many years to be effective in killing pathogens. It can be bacteria, fungus, or it can be a virus similar to the coronavirus. It works in both the air and on surfaces. So it’s more effective and more practical to use than traditional chemical disinfectants. Most chemical-based disinfectant methods don’t work well on air. UV technology offers a cleaner and more effective way to decontaminate a room thoroughly. UV light particles interact at a genetic level to interfere with the DNA of the microbe and stifling its ability to reproduce.”
Suddenly, your phone rings, and it’s your grandmother at the nursing home facility Face-timing you. She tells you that her robot, Stevie, just called you. But, you don’t believe it until she describes in detail how this robot helps to moderate her weekly Bingo game. You feel guilty that you haven’t visited her in two months, but she’s smiling and chatting away as if time hasn’t passed between your visits at all. She tells you that since they hired Stevie, she’s been winning at Bingo. She feels happier and more lively. She’s made new friends at the bingo game. Now, they sit together at the dining hall. Most of all, the Covid-19 pandemic is not at the forefront of her worries anymore.
Violet and Stevie are robots developed by Akara Robotics, a company that focuses on developing robots for the healthcare industry. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the company’s CEO and Co-Founder Conor McGinn saw an opportunity to use technology developed for Stevie in a new robot, Violet. Violet uses UV rays to disinfect surfaces. It is currently being tested in hospitals in Ireland. It is designed for usage in rooms with sensitive equipment such as the radiology room, but the company has plans to expand into other high-risk parts of the hospital over time.
McGinn says, “You can’t just buy a disinfectant robot Violet off the shelf and expect it to solve the problem. However, if you know when to use it and how to use it and you implement the necessary procedures, then it can be very effective. It can be a potential game changer in the infection control space. Starting with hospitals and moving on to nursing homes and other important non-clinical settings, we think that there’s a compelling application for this type of technology.”
Using UV Light To Disinfect Workspaces As Businesses Reopen
Recently, as businesses reopen, there’s a real concern there can be a resurgence of the virus. Some companies, such as the Magnolia Bakery in NYC and homeless shelters, are installing the UV Light portals to use ultraviolet light to get rid of bacteria and viruses. These portals are emitting the far-UVC rays that are not able to penetrate human skin and eyes.
However, in hospitals, as more people move in and out of various rooms containing sensitive equipment, real-time disinfection of the air is necessary to prevent the spread of diseases. Continuous disinfection in rooms containing a CT scan machine or an X-Ray bed is important. Imagine a Covid-19 patient who just broke his hip during a recent fall. Radiologists, nurses, or hospital cleaning crew would need to clean the equipment after this patient leaves the room. Even then, doctors and nurses will still need to worry about the virus lingering in the air. China has been using UV Light in their hospitals to disinfect areas to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Niamh Donnelly, Co-Founder and Director of AI and ML, Akara Robotics, says, “We are working with some hospitals to test Violet at the moment. One of the things that we’ve found is that techniques such as hydrogen peroxide misting cannot be used in places like radiology where there is electrically sensitive equipment such as a CT scan machine. The only way to disinfect such rooms is to have cleaners or healthcare staff manually clean them. Even with manual cleaning, if you think about an X-Ray bed, you may have nooks and crannies in the machine that a person’s fingers can’t actually get inside to clean. In this case, the UV light can help to disinfect these places. So, it really has a lot of benefit over the traditional cleaning methods.”
Autonomous is Better
Not every hospital room can be evacuated for cleaning during the day. As we’ve seen, during the peak of community spread, hospitals were overwhelmed. Nurses and doctors worked long hours on busy shifts. Waiting rooms were full. There was no time to stop and clean the equipment. Even after elective procedures were stopped, patients who came into the hospital for other illnesses became infected with the coronavirus. Imagine if you had to deliver your baby during that time.
Hospitals were locking down parts of the hospital for fear of an outbreak on multiple floors. Ideally, you’d want a robot that can continuously disinfect the air while not interfering with the work of doctors and nurses. This robot must be intelligent enough to move around people and work to target specific areas of the room or equipment for cleaning.
McGinn says, “Not all disinfectant robots have the same autonomous capabilities. Traditionally UV disinfectant robots were really just lamps on wheels and to be effective, rooms often have to be fully evacuated prior to use. They required a lot of human intervention to help to move them around the room to help with the cleaning process. But, Violet is different. Violet is good for disinfecting and cleaning critical front-line rooms that are potentially more crowded, where maneuverability and speed of disinfection is really important and in cases where healthcare workers may be in the same room.”
Robot Mobility And Agility Depends On Faster Chip
In healthcare, when timely responses are critical, it’s important for robots that work in this setting to respond immediately. With additional intelligence, the time that it takes for the robot to respond can increase exponentially. Fast processing chips can shorten the processing time.
Donnelly says, “On Violet we have a 360 degree view. We are able to detect different people in a scene and know exactly where they are. That feeds into our navigation system. If someone is approaching the robot and the robot is cleaning, it can turn away from the person and make sure that light isn’t shining directly on them. That’s the additional safety feature that we have.”
Violet uses Intel Movidius VPU technology. Movidius is a company that focuses on making chips that are optimized for running deep learning networks. In 2016, it was acquired by Intel. Movidius’s technology has been used in the DJI Phantom Drone’s collision avoidance system as well as the coral reef project by Intel. For robots to be usable in a fast-paced real-time environment, efficiency is the key.
Jonathan Byrne, Senior Software Developer, Intel says, “Movidius VPU’s technology has been around for 15 years. It was originally focused on computer vision but its core value is low power. A lot of computer vision systems that use deep learning talk about using GPUs or high powered chips. Movidius’s VPU has always been focused on minimizing that. The Myriad X VPU that we are using in Violet was custom built for deep learning applications. It has hardware on it that is optimized for running deep learning networks, such as person detection, which we are running here. We also have SLAM, simultaneous localized mapping in the chip on customized hardware. This means that it’s optimized for specific usage. On a robot, when you are doing computer vision, you want to minimize the power consumption to make the robot more efficient.”
Is It Actually Clean?
Violet is implemented as part of a broader infection control program being developed by Akara. This program, which involves the collaboration between robots and human cleaners, addresses not only the disinfection process but also in measuring and tracking the presence of germs on surfaces after the cleaning completes. The goal is to give real peace of mind to doctors and nurses that the room is safe for occupancy.
McGinn says, “If you spilled something and mopped it up, it’s very easy to see afterwards if the surface is clean or not. But, with germs which are invisible to the naked eye, it’s very hard to tell how many remain after cleaning. Longer term, we want to work with healthcare organizations to use Violet to implement the best possible infection control systems.”
Beyond Cleaning To Caring
While Violet contributes to keeping hospitals clean, Akara Robotics’s Stevie is helping to relieve a shortage of healthcare workers in the elderly care industry. During the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare workers at nursing facilities worked overtime even during peak times of community spread. Often, they shuttled between two different nursing facilities. When these healthcare workers contracted the coronavirus, the virus spread between various nursing facilities.
To keep healthcare workers safe during the pandemic and to relieve them of repetitive tasks so that they can focus on delivering more empathic care to residents of nursing homes is the mission of Stevie. It is a robotic assistant for healthcare workers in nursing homes.
Stevie has a variety of skills. He can help residents moderate a bingo game in the activities room, assisting a resident in call their relatives on facetime, or keeping the residents stimulated with cognitive activities.
But, more importantly, healthcare workers can give Stevie instructions on where to go and what to do so that Stevie can function as an assistant. During meal times, when there are too many residents in the same room to care for, Stevie can keep the residents entertained while they are waiting for food to be served. Stevie can also visit with residents who haven’t had frequent visits or calls from their family.
Better Healthcare With Robots
During the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest lesson we learned is that we can’t do it all alone. We have to leverage the resources we have to help us serve our patients. Robots like Violet and Stevie from Akara Robotics that can perform dedicated tasks well can help to focus our doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers on delivering quality patient care. Even when the healthcare system weathers ups and downs, the quality of patient care can stay consistent.