When we started OhmniLabs in 2015, we wanted to accelerate robotics development and create products that help our society thrive. Our first flagship product, Ohmni Telepresence Robot, was designed to promote connectivity and collaboration across vast distances, and today is being actively used in classrooms, hospitals, and offices in over 34 countries. But as the world continued to quickly evolve and new challenges were presented — chiefly, in the form of a global pandemic — we believed that our extensive background and expertise in robotics could serve society in another way, which is why we turned our attention to developing an autonomous UV-C robot for hospital disinfection, in the hopes of improving disinfection practices, and ultimately create a healthier world for all.
The fight for cleanliness and disinfection has been an ongoing endeavor in human culture — and deservedly so. While the COVID-19 pandemic has received the bulk of attention over the past two years, disease and infections have been a rampant problem for as long as humans have been around.
Evidence of bathing rituals can be found throughout historical civilizations, with the initial development of soap taking place in ancient Babylon. You can then jump forward into modern times, where practices such as regular hand washing are standard across societies. All of these customs and procedures are founded in an attempt to better our hygiene and reduce the spread of disease and infection.
But as time continued to progress, we began to encounter new types of disease, some requiring individuals to need extensive treatment. And, in a somewhat ironic twist, the very place a person would visit to receive care — i.e., hospitals and other healthcare facilities — can often lead to exposure to even more pathogens.
Healthcare-associated infections (HAI) are, and have been, a major problem for both providers and patients alike. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that “nearly 1.7 million hospitalized patients annually acquire HCAIs while being treated for other health issues and that more than 98,000 patients (one in 17) die due to these.” Further, these infections not only wreak havoc on the general public’s health, but they take a particularly strong economic toll on our healthcare industry, with annual costs ranging anywhere between $28.4 to $33.8 billion. And while serious HAIs like C. Diff and MRSA have been a known issue for some time, the emergence of SARS-Cov-2 (the disease that causes COVID-19) highlighted specific limitations that hindered our battle against infections.
Problems With Traditional Methods of Disinfection
As a result of the pandemic, disinfection practices have taken higher notice in people’s minds — especially when it comes to hospital disinfection. In turn, hospitals were forced to ramp up their cleaning and disinfection practices. For instance, in one hospital where common areas were previously cleaned only twice in a given eight-hour shift, they were now being cleaned and disinfected every two hours.
To better handle this increased demand for disinfection, environmental services and hospital cleaning crews turned to a variety of methods to augment their capabilities. One such technique was electrostatic sprayers, which are purported to spray chemical solutions that, due to the electrically charged droplets it expels, can “wrap around” objects, providing full disinfection of the intended target. However, this method is replete with problems, such as the harmful effects that can come from using chemicals and the fact that the CDC has shown that the wrap-around effect is minimal, at best.
Another popular choice is using UV disinfection to create cleaner spaces. UV light has been utilized for disinfection for decades, and it’s been proven to kill 99.99% of harmful pathogens. While several manual UV disinfection systems are available, they are often too bulky and require too much technical training to be used for proper disinfection. Not to mention, they can often come attached with a hefty price tag, often exceeding $100,000 or more.
In recent years, autonomous UV systems have begun to gain more attention. Where manual systems require a staff member to move the UV unit from place to place, giving a unit autonomous capabilities ostensibly allows it to move about a room on its own, allowing the UV light to hit and disinfect all services. However, similar to issues that plague manual units, existing autonomous options are quite bulky, making the navigation and proper disinfection of crowded rooms or complicated locations difficult, if not impossible.
Seeing that existing options suffered from a slew of problems — including lack of efficacy, size limitations, and high-entry costs — we at OhmniLabs felt our robotics expertise uniquely positioned us to develop a product that could address these issues and help lead our world into this new era of disinfection.
OhmniClean – Our Autonomous UV-C Solution for Hospital Disinfection
As stated, UV light has an extensive history of being used for disinfectant purposes – what with its efficacy of killing 99.99% of pathogens, it’s easy to see why it’s been such a popular choice for hospital cleaning crews. But when combined with the autonomous capabilities that robots can offer, UV disinfection is taken to a new level. Being able to drive itself and traverse an entire room with just the touch of a button allows hospital disinfection teams to significantly reduce turnover time and quickly prepare rooms for the next patient, while also protecting them from exposure to harmful chemicals commonly used in manual disinfection practices.
However, just because an autonomous robot has the ability to move without direct human operation doesn’t mean that it can go anywhere — a problem that has plagued other autonomous UV systems. Hospitals and healthcare facilities feature rooms that contain an abundance of complicated equipment, often in tight quarters. If a UV disinfection system is unable to properly navigate and fit through small areas, then that room would be at risk for improper disinfection, leaving patients and staff susceptible to infection from a left-behind pathogen.
It’s for this reason that we designed our autonomous UV-C disinfection robot, OhmniClean, with a small footprint — about 1/4 the size of competing autonomous solutions — so even the most cramped of spaces can receive a proper dose of UV light. And combined with its light weight of only 59 lbs. — where other UV solutions can be over 300 lbs. — our robot can be easily moved from one location to the next. We know how important it is for cleaning teams to be able to turn over a room as quickly as possible, so making a product that was highly mobile was a top priority.
From there, we beefed up OhmniClean with an arsenal of other great features. To combat the small risk of people being exposed to harmful UV light, we included several safety mechanisms that automatically shut down the disinfection process should anyone enter the room or approach the unit while it’s in process. OhmniClean also provides real-time, audible reports to help prove and ensure that proper disinfection has been achieved.
We’ve been privileged to have real EVS teams at major hospitals give OhmniClean a try, and their staff members are already reporting back with their enthusiasm for the robot. Faster turnaround times, less required labor, and overall a cleaner healthcare environment.
But our mission doesn’t end with the hospital disinfection. More than ever before, the general public is more cognizant of cleanliness, and as we return to our new normal, we want everyone to be confident that their health is secure, not only when entering a healthcare facility, but everywhere they go.
As companies and employees start coming back to the office on a more regular basis, they deserve to work in places that are clean. Proper disinfection practices will protect their health while also allowing them to better focus on their various tasks at hand, as opposed to constantly needing to worry about the potential for being exposed to a harmful organism.
In the same vein, students have already or are beginning to return to in-person learning, and having properly disinfected schools is the key to keeping them in the classroom. While schools’ primary objective is to provide an education, the benefits they provide students go beyond just textbooks and grades. And the only way to fully realize those benefits is for them to be in class, without them or their parents holding any concerns over the cleanliness of their learning environment.
So whether it’s a hospital, office, school, or any other location, we developed OhmniClean to help keep that space clean, safe, and ready to thrive. And we truly hope its release demonstrates the further potential robotics can play in our society. Using robotics for cleaning and disinfecting is a viable and accessible solution for helping stop the spread of disease, and it’s one that may not have previously been afforded the true attention it deserves.
We believe the future of disinfection is automation. And by utilizing our expertise in robotics, we hope to continue developing and innovating technologies that can provide for a better, safer, and healthier world.