Let’s face it. The healthcare industry is facing a number of challenges today. Between a very real labor shortage, and the need to keep everything clean, the industry is facing an uphill battle if it doesn’t find some help. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Conor McGinn, CEO, Akara Robotics, to address this very topic and he has an interesting solution. Here is a hint: it’s a robot.
“We see a lot of opportunity in the healthcare system, largely due to the fact that there is this chronic labor shortage and without technology we just don’t have a chance to solve,” McGinn explains. “Myself and my cofounders started out as engineering students and saw an opportunity to help solve some of the scientific bottlenecks that were slowing down progress.”
A little bit of background: His robotics company is out of Trinity College in Dublin, and has already developed Stevie, an AI (artificial intelligence)-powered social robot designed to be a helper in retirement communities, but the company quickly mobilized with the help of partners to offer something new in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
That “something” is Violet, an ultraviolet light robot capable of killing harmful germs, including viruses and bacteria. Columbia University researchers point out that UV light is already used to disinfect hospital rooms and medical equipment by damaging microbes’ genetic material. Combining this technology and AI with a stripped-down version of the Stevie humanoid robot, Violet could help hospitals battle the COVID-19 virus in their most desperate hour.
“It is really hard to know how many germs there are in a room. You need to deploy teams of microbiologists to swab things and of course that can be very, very difficult to deploy at scale. Many parts of hospitals, like infection control teams, just don’t know how much of a risk they pose.” McGinn explains. “Our first protocol, as you say, was almost like a CIS approach.”
Engineers at the company managed to put together the Violet prototype based on the Stevie robot in just 24 hours. From there, the company has had some help. The Irish HSE (Health Service Executive) has fast tracked the prototype’s development due to its potential to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Akara also turned to partner Intel to adapt Stevie’s computer vision technology to something suitable for its Violet robot, which needed to be able to navigate a hospital room while carefully avoiding humans.
Intel says the Violet prototype detects and avoids people using motion sensors, an Intel Movidius VPU (vision processing unit), and the Luxonis DepthAI platform for AI, depth, and feature tracking. The Akara team has been part of an Intel-funded incubator since January.
As McGinn told me exclusively, “Movidius is a pretty low-cost chip, but it packs a huge punch.
Testing for the Violet disinfecting robot is already underway in Ireland. The prototype was used to disinfect CT scanners and isolation rooms and was found to not only reduce downtimes due to the disinfection process but also spare human workers the potentially dangerous task of doing it by hand.
By automating the manual disinfecting process, the solution also cuts back on the need to use chemical-based “no touch” solutions, such as vapors that require evacuation for several hours. Violet is also being tested in Dublin as a method for disinfecting within the public transit system, and it could potentially be used for other high foot traffic areas like public bathrooms, airports, hotels, and waiting rooms. Violet is expected to be ready to go for hospitals sometime this year.
The role of AI, robots, and automation in helping society recover from the pandemic is yet to be seen, but in all likelihood, going forward, these technologies will play a bigger role in healthcare. Now that many places in the world have seen what can happen when hospitals are overrun and human healthcare workers are overwhelmed, the industry will be particularly motivated to develop, test, and adopt solutions that could make a future pandemic less devastating than the current one.
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