The “Roomba” Grows Up – Robotics and COVID-19 Disinfection

Craig B. Ramich, CSP, LEED AP, CMC, CEICC

As businesses attempt to define the “new normal” in the times of COVID-19, significant strides are being made in routine disinfection of commercial spaces with the help of specialized robots. Numerous companies are developing and deploying robotic COVID-19 disinfection equipment to promote consistent and reliable service to a wide range of commercial occupancies.  Many companies have utilized specialty remediation firms (i.e., manual labor) to clean and disinfect surfaces following a confirmed COVID-19 case in their facilities, but these services can be costly and are not logistically nor fiscally sustainable practices in the long term.  So in true entrepreneurial fashion, enter the age of the disinfection robot.

Disinfection Robots Mechanisms of Action

Generally, there are two mechanisms by which the robots provide disinfection: ultraviolet (UV) light and chemical cleaning agents.  Each mechanism works in very different ways.  UV light disinfects by providing sufficient amount of electromagnetic energy that destroys microorganism’s ability to reproduce.  Certain wavelengths of UV light are more effective than others.  For UV light to be effective as a means of disinfection, it needs to be more powerful than ordinary lighting and be within a certain distance of the surfaces intended for cleaning.

Electrostatic misting is more commonly referred to as “chemical spraying” which entails dispersal of approved liquid chemical disinfectants via a sprayer or similar mechanism.  Two of the key aspects of misting are achieving sufficient coverage/spray depth and dwell time.  Misting should result in a thin layer of disinfectant remaining, which must be in contact with a surface for a minimal time period such that it can fully react with any residual viral component on the surface (“dwell time”).  

When robotics firms first began to adapt their devices to deliver each of these disinfection methods, manufacturers needed to consider the specific disinfection means and how the robots would need to adapt.  For example, UV light disinfection robots need to be close enough to surfaces to be cleaned and must remain at that location for a set period of time, typically 15 seconds or more, to provide a sufficient “light dose”.  This results in the robot proceeding through a facility in a very “choppy” fashion with multiple stops.  Conversely, misting disinfection robots generally move through a space at a slow consistent speed, spraying disinfection chemicals through a nozzle.  The base robot that houses the lights or sprayer is programmed or “learns” the required travel patterns to deliver the necessary UV light or mist dosing required for disinfection akin to the Roomba or similar sweeping robot in many people’s homes.

Disinfection Robots and Routine Cleaning

With the combination of these technologies, human beings no longer need to be present when either disinfection method is deployed.  Robots can operate in evenings or between work shifts when facilities are empty or lightly occupied and will consistently disinfect the same areas over and over again.  Many hospitals and care centers are routinely deploying these robots in Europe and the U.K.

There are some important factors to consider when utilizing robots for disinfection purposes.  UV light and certain chemicals can adversely react with certain building materials and furniture textiles, particularly plastics.  Areas that are densely populated with furniture or uniquely shaped may be difficult for the robot platforms to access.  But it appears that robots are gaining more traction in commercial buildings and provide a unique alternative to traditional disinfection methods.  

Would you consider using a cleaning robot at your facility?  Feel free to comment below and engage in the conversation.  This information is provided by SafeSpace, a highly experienced consortium of scientific and event logistics professionals focused on practical solutions to your most difficult COVID-19 challenges.

References: http://emag.medicalexpo.com/disinfection-robots-against-covid-19/; https://www.therobotreport.com/4-robotics-applications-accelerated-by-covid-19/ 

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