To persuade his fellow citizens to enter, very reluctantly, their second national pandemic Lockdown, one of the main arguments being made UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is the protection of the NHS. But if ensuring the nation’s health service has capacity to cope with rising COVID hospitalisation, why are we still using humans to wipe down dirty corridors and not have these staff available for more frontline care?
That’s one way of understanding why the idea of specially-programmed robots to clean NHS hospitals is gaining more and more traction in the UK. Did we just say ‘robots’? Pardon us–we meant, of course, ‘UV virus-busting robots,’ as they were dubbed when London’s St Pancras was claimed to be the first ever major train station to deploy such devices in September, while Leeds city centre also trialled similar cleaning tech in the Summer.
‘Growing interest in the idea of using robots to safely sanitise areas dangerous to humans’
The basic idea here is that mobile robotic devices can clean and spray sanitisation materials on floors, or be equipped with ultraviolet beams that can eradicate surface bacteria–a particularly useful aspect of combatting SARS-CoV-2. That makes sense in crowded areas like a train concourse, but even more so in an acute healthcare environment, and a number of UK hospitals want to see for themselves just how.
This summer’s seen a swathe of robots being sent in to try and root out coronavirus, such as at Royal Derby Hospital and the nearby Queen’s Hospital Burton. There, speaking devices of human height displaying different flashing colours to signify which stage of the disinfection process they are in are trolleying round emitting targeted doses of UV light, for instance. Still in the Midlands, a £70,000 robot from a firm called Sychem that again is using UVC light to defeat pandemic bacteria and viruses has been introduced into the Spire Little Aston Hospital in Sutton Coldfield–all evidence of take-up of what is claimed to be a global UV-C disinfection robotic disinfection market of $5.57 billion by 2027.
There’s certainly growing interest in the idea of using robots to safely sanitise areas dangerous to humans at the moment; UVD Robots, the Danish manufacture of ultraviolet-light-disinfection robots, told the BBC it’s already shipped “hundreds” of such machines to hospitals in China and Europe, while the sales manager of a distributor of such machines from Finsen Technologies told a Yorkshire news site that, “Anyone can see how this would benefit hospitals… Patients are so frightened to go into hospital with everything that has happened in the last few months, you would think the NHS would be all over this [and] from a patient perspective, it would give them more confidence to go into hospital. It’s about making people safe.”
Applications that can ease the burden in overrun hospitals
The UK’s hardly alone in looking into this approach: robots of all sorts were directly involved fighting the pandemic in at least 33 nations, according to Robotics for Infectious Diseases; across the Irish Sea, Dublin’s Mater Misericordiae University Hospital is also trialling the potential of UVC to decontaminate a room in an average of 10 to 20 minutes, a process that it estimates would previously have taken cleaning staff between two to three hours.
But COVID is hardly the only reason we’re seeing such interest. “Healthcare robotics has been a hot topic in the UK for a number of decades,” confirms Salford University’s Dr. Antonio Espingardeiro. The most prominent example here is the DaVinci robot, of which nearly 30 are in use in the NHS now for help in complex surgery such as prostate and cancer removals that is now a familiar sight in operating theatres including Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London.
But for sure now during COVID, he goes on, we have started to see applications that can ease the burden in overrun hospitals. “Such use of robotics means NHS Trusts can now have more dedicated cleaning personnel assigned to disinfect other sensitive areas in care centres and hospitals,” he told RockingRobots.
However, Espingardeiro says we should expect more use of advanced tech in the NHS as we try and grind our way through the next few challenging months–such as using machine learning chatbots as the first point of contact for patients to respond to, a new form of online triaging method that can forwards patients to the right specialists and correct medical attention. “The advantages of this method means that patients do not have to travel unnecessary distances and, therefore, get potential unnecessary infections,” he points out. And beyond that, he believes, robotic cleaners will soon have other help–in the use of IoT-powered arrays of sensors dispersed in the human body and translate those signals into healthcare records, for example.
“We can expect a significant merger between hardware sensing abilities, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and human expertise, to analyse results and advise patients,” he concludes.
Will we retrain all our NHS cleaners as nurses, then? No–but we may make their jobs a little bit easier and safer, as more and more smart tech comes on-stream to help save the NHS as Johnson wants.