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Robot zaps airport viruses as pandemic travel picks up, but how much does it help?

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an era of distinctive travel experiences for those going against expert guidance to stay at home for Thanksgiving.

Not only must passengers wear masks throughout flights, but they also face innovative gadgets meant to combat the coronavirus — though the efficacy of some is questionable, according to epidemiologists.

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

Some airports, such as Los Angeles International, have installed thermal imaging cameras to scan for fever symptoms, while airlines such as United have installed touchless kiosks, enabling passengers to keep their hands clean while checking in.

As air travel gains some steam and coronavirus-related shutdowns return in pockets of the country, one of the latest iterations of virus-fighting tech at the airport is a germ-zapping robot at San Antonio International Airport in Texas.

It’s called LightStrike, and other airports are considering whether to invest in the $125,000 device that has been shown to be effective against the coronavirus. Some airports are watching to see whether travel improves over the coming weeks, according to officials at Xenex, the company behind the device.

“When you bring something like SARS-CoV-2 into focus, institutions like hotels, airlines, professional sports teams, they’re looking for what’s best-in-class to kill it,” said Morris Miller, CEO of Xenex.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

Xenex says its robot business has increased 600% amid the pandemic. Most of the increase is related to the health care industry, but the robot also has entered new markets such as hotels, professional sports facilities and police stations.

Initially developed for use in hospitals and recently picked up by a school district in Texas, LightStrike is 43 inches tall, about the size of a wheelchair, and has to be pushed along by an operator to reach targeted areas.

The high-tech plug-in pushcart uses powerful bursts of UV light to combat viruses on surfaces within a 7-foot radius, according to Mark Stibich, an infectious-diseases epidemiologist and chief scientific officer at Xenex.

It’s been known for decades that UV radiation can destroy viruses by chemically altering their genetic material. However, different pathogens are susceptible to UV light at varying wavelengths.

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

Many traditional UV devices use low-intensity mercury bulbs, which means they may take longer to kill organic material such as viruses. By contrast, LightStrike robots have a powerful xenon UV-C light source capable of damaging the DNA and RNA of viruses in a matter of minutes.

When plugged in, the machine stores up a charge and releases the UV light in quick, pulsating bursts that also happen to be gentler on surfaces than continuous UV rays generated by mercury, according to Xenex. The device is not safe for use on humans, and the company built in a motion sensor, so the robot automatically turns off if a person comes within range.

In a test run at San Antonio-based Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the robot destroyed the coronavirus in two minutes. It has also been effective at obliterating some superbugs such as C. diff, a bacterium that causes severe diarrhea and is resistant to many disinfectants.

To combat the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, Xenex encourages operators to leave the UV-C light in reach of highly touched surfaces for at least two minutes to maximize efficiency. The surfaces are immediately safe to use and touch after the disinfecting cycle is complete. The number of cycles required to disinfect a room depends on the size of the space, the company says.

While robot cleaners can provide an additional layer of protection against spreading the virus, their value is questionable at airports, according to some epidemiologists. Sure, the technology represents a way of disinfecting surfaces such as handrails, kiosks, water fountains and bathrooms, but that’s not the primary way the virus travels.

Also, disinfecting points of physical contact has little effect on circulating air that might transport respiratory illnesses, experts say.

Still, the devices may help the struggling travel industry motivate some people to start moving again.

“Surface transmission is one of the least likely ways that an individual would catch coronavirus,” said Mercedes Carnethon, professor of epidemiology at Northwestern University. “Perhaps robots are a measure that’s reassuring to individuals, but it’s not really going to have a large-scale impact.”

Hand-washing is still encouraged if you come in contact with highly touched or unclean surfaces, which may pose a small risk if you touch your face.

Despite innovative tech and the latest talk of possible vaccines, the U.S. air travel industry still has a long way to go to reach pre-coronavirus levels. In the seven days ending Nov. 17, air travel was down 63% compared to the same period last year. That represented a modest improvement over a 66% drop tallied a week earlier.

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

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