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March of the COVID-fighting robots

An army of disinfecting robots has been enlisted in the fight against the coronavirus, as companies seek fast, safe and effective ways of cleaning and sanitizing workplaces and other public spaces.

One of the latest entrants is from Fetch Robotics, a cloud robotics and on-demand automation firm. The company partnered with Build with Robots (BWR), a developer of industrial robots, and the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to release the Breezy One, a disinfecting autonomous mobile robot.

The companies announced the robot’s debut on June 18.

What is unique about the Breezy One, according to Kimberly Corbitt, Build with Robots’ head of customer engagement, is that it is specially designed for large spaces, such as airports, factories and warehouses.

“It safely and effectively disinfects 100,000 square feet in an hour and a half,” Corbitt told FreightWaves. For comparison, she said, it would take a team of people an entire shift to disinfect a facility of that size.

After the robot has finished cleaning, employees can reenter the space in about two hours, “confident that allergens, bacteria and viruses have been taken out of the air and surface,” Corbitt said.

The Breezy One uses a patented, EPA-registered, government-developed and -tested disinfecting chemical originally developed to kill harmful biological agents. It eliminates around 99.9999% of viruses and bacteria, according to the companies.

A good fit for warehouse and fulfillment

Put into service last month, the Breezy One was developed with the city of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department, where it sanitizes the city’s airport facilities every night. But the team has its eye on other large spaces, which require significantly more manpower and labor costs to sanitize, and which often expose employees to cleaning chemicals that can be harmful in their own right.

Founded in 2014, Fetch Robotics already has a large presence in the warehousing space, Melonee Wise, Fetch CEO, told FreightWaves. “For customers who already have robots, this is going to be a quick and easy add.”

The base of Breezy One is the same generic autonomous mobile robot the company deploys for point-to-point delivery in the warehouse, Wise explained. “Then we marry that with a purpose-built robot for disinfections.”

Since BWR built Breezy One on Fetch Robotics’ cloud software platform, customers can remotely change the robot’s paths, schedules and frequencies as needs change.

Unlike some of the other solutions on the market, the Breezy does not use UV light to kill coronavirus microbes. A growing body of research suggests that UV light can kill the novel coronavirus, and the solution is currently in use as a disinfectant. Amazon, for one, has built a UV-light emitting robot to kill the virus in its Whole Food stores.

While UV light can be effective for smaller spaces with flat surfaces such as surgical units, the Breezy One team believes that is not the best fit for large spaces like warehouses that “don’t have perfectly flat surfaces,” Corbitt said, but are “more textured, like cardboard.”

Warehouses have a lot of corners and edges, “and for that you need an effective and safe chemical that can take things out of the air and can cover those surfaces in a way that UV can never reach,” Corbitt said.

Allaying fears about robots displacing workers, the team said the Breezy One does not replace janitorial staff but instead integrates into their workflows. Disinfecting is dangerous and difficult work, Corbitt noted, requiring workers to suit up with personal protective equipment, carry disinfectant on their backs, and then spray and be exposed to large volumes of chemicals.

“It’s hot, uncomfortable, physically painful and really boring,” she said.

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