These germ-zapping robots kill the COVID-19 virus in hospitals, hotels and more

In the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, add the names of Mark, Rowan, Dorian and Jabba to the list of front-line heroes quietly toiling away to vanquish the virus.

The four are germ-zapping robots, recruited by Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights to do one job: kill the virus and other pathogens by sweeping rooms with pulsating beams of high-intensity UV light.

Last month, the 3u00bd-foot-tall robots, which bear a striking resemblance to R2-D2, the plucky droid from “Star Wars,” disinfected nearly 700 rooms at the hospital.

“Every COVID room gets treated when the patient is discharged,” said Kris York, director of hospitality services at the hospital. “The robots didn’t get much of a break.”

The four are part of a growing army of LightStrike robots, $125,000-a-pop machines that fire powerful UV blasts at surfaces where SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may be lurking.

There is such great demand for their services that Xenex, the Texas-based company behind the robots, announced a $20 million deal last month with aerospace manufacturer Astronics to build hundreds of them at a Waukegan factory.

“We’re playing catch-up right now on all the orders that have come in,” Xenex CEO Morris Miller said. “When the needs hit everywhere, people just upped their orders and they haven’t really stopped.”

Invented in 2009 by two Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists to fight community-acquired infections such as MRSA in hospitals, the robot has proved a highly effective tool in combating the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

A study published in August by the Texas Biomedical Research Institute found the robot destroyed nearly 100% of the virus on surfaces in two minutes.

“When you hit a pathogen with a high-intensity photon, it literally blows apart the cellular wall, basically deactivating it so that nobody else can get infected,” Miller said.

Last year, Xenex generated about $20 million in revenue and sold about 160 robots, mostly to hospitals. This year, Miller expects to sell about 900 robots as the market expands to include hotels such as the Beverly Hilton and Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills and sports teams such as the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

NBC TV show “Chicago Med” acquired a LightStrike robot on loan this fall to weave into the storyline as it shoots at Chicago’s Cinespace studios. The season premiere aired Nov. 11, with COVID-19 at the center of myriad dramatic subplots.

It is not clear what role the robot will play, but Universal Television, which produces the show, said it will be a visible prop during the season.

In the real world, its role is much more important.

Since the first prototype was sold in 2011 to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, the robot has been refined and is now in its 5th generation.

In 2014, LightStrike was brought in to clean up the room at Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas where Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person to die of Ebola in the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 12 million people and killed more than 257,000 in the U.S. alone, according to Johns Hopkins, has increased the need at hospitals, and broadened the potential applications for the robot, Miller said.

“In three years from now, you’re not going to stay in a hotel that hasn’t been disinfected with a UV light,” Miller said.

While a $125,000 robot isn’t practical for every business, Xenex has rolled it out as a paid service in Texas, disinfecting everything from restaurants to car dealerships at a rate of $299 per hour, with plans to expand to other markets.

Miller said UV robots may eventually find their way into home use, akin to renting an industrial-quality carpet cleaner. But the components are likely too expensive to create a home version.

The biggest potential market remains health care, from hospitals to ambulatory surgical centers. Meeting even current demand will require an ongoing manufacturing agreement with Astronics, he said.

“I could do that if I can get the Illinois facility to make them fast enough,” Miller said.

Astronics, which is headquartered near Buffalo, New York, supplies technology to the commercial aviation, defense and space industries. In 2017, Astronics acquired Telefonix PDT, a suburban Chicago company that makes in-flight entertainment equipment for the airline industry.

Xenex worked with Telefonix PDT to help design an earlier version of the robot. When demand skyrocketed this year, exceeding production capacity at its Xenex’s San Antonio factory, the company struck a deal with Astronics to build several hundred robots in Waukegan through spring 2021.

The Waukegan facility, which opened in 2019 and employs about 300 full-time workers, was able to pivot to robots as airline industry demand slowed during the pandemic, said Astronics spokeswoman Deborah Pawlowski.

Astronics delivered its first batch of Illinois-made robots late last month. Each will be named by its new owner, with an engraved nameplate attached to the robot.

Northwest Community Hospital bought Jabba in March and Dorian in July. Rowan and Mark came aboard in early September.

Rolled into position and plugged into a wall outlet, the robot is activated remotely and operates in a closed room, to keep from blinding the handler, usually a member of the housekeeping staff. Its head rises another 2 feet and a super bright xenon bulb lights up. Two to four minutes later, the cleaning is complete.

“When you open the door, it kind of smells like a thunderstorm,” York said. “It has this very clean smell.”

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