Meet the virus-fighting robots selling in ‘truckloads’

'We had been growing the business at quite a high pace - but the coronavirus has kind of rocketed the demand.'
23 March 2020

Light coming from an ultraviolet (UV) pulse lights disinfecting robot at the Netcare Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg in March 2020. Source: AFP

Robots and automated machines with the ability to kill microbes and other biological organisms using ultraviolet light have seen an exponential surge in demand, especially in countries with a significant number of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Robotics firms such as Blue Ocean Robotics, UVD Robots, and Kenex have all experienced recent spikes in orders for their ‘virus-fighting’ robots from affected hot zones throughout the world, BBC reports.

UVD Robots Chief Executive Per Juul Nielsen had this to say: “We had been growing the business at quite a high pace – but the coronavirus has kind of rocketed the demand.”

The UVD machine was developed in partnership with Blue Ocean Robotics and the Odense University Hospital in Denmark. The robot is a self-driving, voice-enabled machine intended for hospitals, which disinfects microbes with concentrated, high-intensity ultraviolet light.

Sales of the robot have shot up in affected parts of Europe and Asia, and UVD vice president Simon Ellison says “truckloads” have already been shipped to China, Wuhan in particular, and the machines can now emit audio in Mandarin Chinese as well as English.

Unsurprising, with nearly 60,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 5,476 confirmed deaths as of the time of writing (on March 23), Italy has also been “showing a very strong demand,” Neilsen said.

The high intensity, UV-C ultraviolet light bulbs projects ultraviolet light causing potentially harmful microbes like bacteria and viruses to become unable to multiply, by causing irreparable damage to the organisms’ DNA and RNA sequences. It can even be harmful to humans, if not properly shielded.

Although the machine has yet to be put to the test against the novel coronavirus, experts in the clinical research fields believe that UV disinfectant robots can help in the fight against COVID-19, as the coronavirus is similar to other virus strains that are susceptible to concentrated UV light.

“Coronavirus is very similar to other viruses like Mers and Sars. And we know that they are being killed by UV-C light,” explained Professor Hans Jorg Kolmos clinical microbiology professor of the University of Southern Denmark, who helped guide the development of the UVD robot.

The robot was originally designed to counter the risks of contracting hospital-prone infections (hospital-acquired infections, or HAIs) at a cost of $67,000 per machine.

Other experts concur, with Dr Lena Ciric, molecular biology expert attached to the University College London, saying that UV disinfection could help from an infection-control standpoint, especially for hospitals in affected areas and those expecting a huge influx of patients in the coming days and weeks.

Other ultraviolet sanitizing robots like Xenex’s LightStrike and China’s YuiBot, have also seen a dramatic rise in orders. LightStrike is already widely used in American healthcare facilities and has now seen demand surge in Italy, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea.

YuiBot is one of several Chinese robotics firms that had to pivot from the robots they were already building, and apply their know-how to developing autonomous models with healthcare or UV-C virus-killing applications.