How this Far-UVC germkiller robot will battle COVID-19

*This story has been updated to include a reference to an FDA advisory published on August 19, the day after this story originally appeared.  

A technology startup has begun marketing two-wheel robots equipped with movable germicidal lamps to emit a safe form of ultraviolet light called Far-UVC to sanitize hard-to-reach areas in subway trains, classrooms, restaurants and offices in another attempt to control the spread of COVID-19.

Hygeia UV based in Kansas City, Missouri, is in discussions with at least one major U.S. city’s subway system to deploy its technology, having successfully tested the robot’s ability to operate on a moving streetcar.

The two-wheeled robot weighs 42 pounds with a base that is about 2-feet high and is topped-off with a longer pole to hold two or four Far UVC lamps on extendable arms.

 It is also equipped with an array of motion and optical sensors and remote video control capabilities through a customized Android 5.1 operating system. It has already been demonstrated at restaurants and Hygeia has received enough customer interest to start ramping up production, according to Herb Sih, one of its founders and chief operating officer.   

 In its next generation, Hygeia will make the robot fully autonomous and able to assess the size and shape of a room or space to be able to roam on its own and sanitize surfaces, including under tables, counters and seats, Sih told Fierce Electronics in an exclusive interview.  Hygeia UV will be able to provide robots on platforms other than the Segway Loomo, its current iteration..

 Sih is also managing partner of Think Big Partners in Kansas City, a consultancy that has worked with tech giants like Cisco in developing smart city technologies.

Hygeia’s CEO and other co-founder is David Klinkon, formerly director of business development at CloudMinds Technology, a developer of cloud robots such as Cloud Pepper, a semi-humanoid robot made by SoftBank Robotics that is powered by the CloudMinds Harix cloud brain.  Wayne Chang, another partner in Hygeia, acts as an advisor to the startup.

 Sih estimated it takes 60 minutes to 90 minutes to sanitize a 3,000-square-foot restaurant with the Hygeia robot, reaching under tables and areas that a fixed UV light would not reach.  The robot can be used with workers and patrons present since it is equipped with collision avoidance features.

 Each robot is expected to cost about $45,000, but could be leased for up to $18,000 a year, Sih said.  That’s far less than other UVC robots on the market which are not agile or small enough to work in small spaces, such as behind a bar.

At the heart of the robot’s sanitization abilities are flexible arms that hold Far UVC lamps that are manufactured by a Kansas City area firm and cost $3,000 apiece.  The arms can be moved to reach with UV light rays into crevices where pathogens may thrive, an advantage over a fixed overhead light that casts shadows where UV rays won’t hit.

UVC ultraviolet light used by Hygeia is considered safe because it has shorter wavelengths than UVA or UVB and is absorbed by proteins in the outer layer of dead human skin cells before reaching the DNA in living cells. Outdoor sunlight doesn’t have UVC, because it is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.  In recent months, building managers at offices and malls have worked furiously to install UVC lamps inside of air conditioning duct work to kill COVID-19 pathogens.

A wide body of research supports the use of ultraviolet in killing pathogens. Hygeia operates in a specific spectrum of UVC light that is called Far-UVC, in the 207 nm to 222 nm wavelength, that is deemed safe for skin and eyes, according to Hygeia promotional materials.   That Hygeia claim is supported by recent research by Columbia University Irving Medical Center finding that far-UVC light could safely “greatly reduce the level of airborne virus in indoor environments occupied by people.”

*UPDATE: The U.S. FDA cited the Columbia research in an advisory posted on August 19 that said the effectiveness of UVC lamps in fighting the COVID-19 virus is unknown because there is "limited published data about the wavelength, dose and duration of UVC radiation required to inactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus."  The advisory said some lamps with peak wavelength of 222-nm (like Hygegeia's lamps) may cause less damage to skin, eyes and DNA than 254 nm wavelength, but "long-term safety data is lacking."

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