Covid-19: Virus-killing robot developed by TCD start-up

Akara Robotics device clinically proven to kill viruses and bacteria

Irish scientists at Akara Robotics have developed a robotic technology to help keep hospitals clean of coronavirus. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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A robot emitting ultraviolet light (UVC) with the ability to disinfect hospitals and get rid of the Covid-19 virus has been developed by a start-up attached to Trinity College Dublin.

Being able to clean healthcare facilities thoroughly and quickly is hugely demanding as coronavirus cases escalate.

Created by Akara Robotics, it is clinically proven to kill viruses, bacteria and harmful germs, and does so in a much shorter time compared to usual cleaning methods, according to its inventor Dr Conor McGinn.

Robot Violet was tested in an acute hospital in the Dublin area last week after Dr McGinn contacted the HSE indicating it would be effective in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in healthcare settings. They are awaiting microbiological test results to confirm its effectiveness.

“This system could reduce dependency on the use of chemical-based solutions, which may be effective but requires rooms to be vacated for several hours during sterilisation, making them impractical for many parts of the hospital,” said Dr McGinn.

In addition, many pieces of high-tech equipment cannot be disinfected using “deep chemicals”, so manual cleaning is needed. Robot Violet is also effective in such circumstances, he said.

The start-up was spun out of TCD’s Robotics & Innovation Lab, which is best known for creating Stevie, a social robot making friends with carers and older people in residential care settings. Dr McGinn turned his attention to the sterilisation properties of UVC about a year ago.

Wavelengths

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation uses UVC at sufficiently short wavelengths to break down DNA in microbes, which stops them from replicating. In the case of a virus it can arrest spread of infection. The technology is used in other countries, but the TCD robot is the first in Ireland to be used in such circumstances.

Akara has been experimenting with UVC sterilisation, performing tests to determine the wavelength, distance and angles that achieve the best results.

Dr McGinn said he was confident the technology would be effective in hospitals, though some adjustment for particular settings to get its approach right, informed by the test results, may be needed.

Typically, a CAT scan takes a few minutes to operate but an hour to clean after use. Rooms in hospitals can take up to five hours to sterilise, while the robotic light-based solution can halve the time required, it is claimed.

However, Dr McGinn said bathing a room in UVC was best deployed as a complement to other cleaning methods.

He said the HSE was supportive but acting in the best interests of the public and its staff, so it wanted verification on the robot’s effectiveness in killing bugs; validation in a clinical setting and assurance it can be used in practical ways by cleaning staff and does not harm users.

“We are very happy with the progress we are making,” he said, while awaiting test results from TCD microbiologist Dr Michael Beckett on the robot’s use in a clinical setting.

Safety features

UVC can damage skin and eyes, but Robot Violet has a range of safety features to protect those using it, that also allow it to be deployed in high-traffic areas where existing cleaning approaches fall short. It uses artificial intelligence to shut down if a human unexpectedly appears in front of it while in operation.

Arkara Robotics, which employs seven people, has the ability to make up to 50 devices in coming weeks subject to getting some parts, said Dr McGinn, and to have the first device fully deployed in an Irish hospital as early as next week. This involved use of a short-term model as it was developing more advanced models for the longer term.