Even as infections in China reportedly subside, the rest of the world is still bracing for the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. China is closing its borders to reduce the possibility of a second wave, and the U.S. has surpassed Italy in confirmed cases. People in India and much of the world have been asked to maintain “social distancing.” At the same time, UVD Robots ApS has been scaling up production to meet demand.
Odense, Denmark-based UVD Robots makes an autonomous mobile robot that can enter a room and disinfect it with UV-C light, without exposing staffers to potentially harmful radiation. It is one of several companies offering disinfection systems in response to the novel coronavirus, but robotics suppliers have a long way to go to meet shifting and growing global needs.
“We’ve been working for six years to create a hospital disinfection system, and this crisis comes two years after we launched the UVD robot,” said Claus Risager, co-founder and CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics, which owns UVD Robots. “Inquiries from resellers and new customers have been overwhelming, and our production people are the only ones in the office. We’ve sold as many robots in three days as we did in our first year, and we’re moving to a larger building by the end of summer.”
Global growth patterns in demand
“There’s a clear pattern of demand — it’s enormous in Asia and the Middle East,” Risager told The Robot Report. “In Europe and North America, it has been lower and more steady. This relates to the way decisions are made in response to COVID-19.”
“In the Middle East in particular, some countries’ leaders have just said, ‘We need 100 of these robots.’ In Europe, every hospital unit is its own kingdom, and each doctor is responsible for making decisions,” he asserted. “In a crisis, more centralized decision-making is a better approach. European governments are now recognizing this.”
“For example, Denmark had the highest growth rate after Italy because of a busload of international skiers in Northern Italy,” said Risager. “The Danish government imposed strict restrictions [on movement], and South Korea sold it large quantities of respirators in 12 hours, bypassing the usual procedures. ”
Several sources have told The Robot Report that the infection rate has peaked in China. “That has not yet affected demand,” Risager replied. “A hospital in Taiwan estimated that we reduced the number of infections by 40% to 50% in both hospital staffers and patients. Those findings helped, and one week later, our largest Chinese reseller, which has about 2,000 customers, ordered a larger quantity of robots.”
“Also, our components coming from China are now running at a steady level, and now the main problems are with components from Europe, where it will be the worst around Easter,” he said. “We’ve gotten a huge order from Brazil, and we’re very active in South Africa.”
UVD Robots addresses copycats
While existing competitors such as Xenex Disinfection Services LLC have also reported growth in demand for their systems, many others have jumped on the COVID-19 bandwagon.
“So many people are trying to copy the UVD robots,” Risager observed. “It’s unbelievable how fast that came. There’s more to our product than putting light bulbs on a robot. We’ve done clinical design and long-term testing for all kinds of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, as well as time of exposure, angles, shadowing effects, and reflections.”
One of the challenges is that contamination rises and falls in an operating room as people enter and exit between surgeries and the room is disinfected, he explained. “We can calculate the average amount of bacteria and viruses in a room based on these waves, and we’ve found that ICUs [intensive care units] can reduce bacteria in their environments by 77% and in surgical rooms by 83%,” said Risager. “The amount of virus matters.”
In addition, knockoff vendors might not teach users the correct safety procedures for operating UV systems, he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time making the robot is safe, and most hospitals are very careful not to harm patients or staff,” Risager said.
“What’s annoying is that salespeople contact hospitals with a photocopy that looks like our trademarked robot,” he said. “We’ve already had hospitals tell us that they’ve had terrible presentations from resellers, and when we looked them up, we’ve never heard of them before. Not only could this erode UVD Robots’ mission, but it could damage the credibility of the entire healthcare robotics community.”
UVD Robots looks ahead
“Last summer, we already changed from producing after orders to production based on forecasts,” Risager explained. “We now update forecasts with a higher frequency.”
UVD Robots has received orders “in the hundreds,” and it prioritizes those from healthcare institutions, he said. “Surgical site infections are the most dangerous, then ICUs, and then patient rooms,” he said.
“If we get very orders for large quantities, we ask the customer to split it up into some weeks,” said Risager. “This also works for them, because they need to get the robots in, train staffers in three or four hours, and be ready to fully deploy them. They need a rollout plan, and hospitals are already extremely busy.”
“There are something like 18,000 hospitals in the world, and very few have nonsurgical robots,” he said. “In the past, robots delivering food or providing telepresence have been seen as gimmicks or nice to have, but now it turns out that they are really valuable.”
“I also think that drones that measure people’s temperatures are useful,” Risager added. “Such systems move us in the right direction.”
Even after the current crisis abates, people will remember the lessons from it, he said. “Many politicians have been arguing, but people are realizing that we have one world,” Risager said. “They will watch for the next outbreak and prepare for the future. We see an expansion of service robots from healthcare to shopping malls, supermarkets, production sites, office spaces, airports, prisons, and train stations.”