Life Flight's new protection against COVID-19: a cleaning robot

The coronavirus pandemic is changing many aspects of our lives. Even the sanitizing of Life Flight helicopters owned by Memorial Hermann’s Life Flight in Houston has a new weapon against the spread of the virus – a sanitation robot.

One helicopter in the hospital system’s Life Flight fleet has been designated for transporting COVID-19 patients. In order to cope with what was sure to be an increase in demand due to the coronavirus spreading in the Houston area, a plan was made to use one helicopter solely for patients with the virus. To be prepared for whatever would arise, Tom Flanagan, the director of Memorial Hermann Life Flight brought together Life Flight medical director Dr. Lesley Osborne, UTHealth epidemiologist Dr. Luis Ostrosky and Brandy Ferguson with the hospital’s emergency management team, as well as the chief flight nurse and chief pilot to work through tabletop exercises. From those exercises, a plan was put together.

The top priority is cleanliness. After each flight, the helicopter is cleaned with a water and bleach solution and then the cloth barrier between the cockpit and the patient area is removed. At that point, an ultraviolet-light sanitation robot is brought onboard. Ultraviolet-light sanitation robots are already used in operating rooms so they were readily available.

In the hospital, the tubular robot rests on a set of wheels, and stands about as tall as a third-grader. But inside the confined space of an aircraft, two crew members hoist the 40-pound clear cylinder from its base.

“It’s pretty heavy actually,” said Christopher Oliver, a flight nurse.

Crew members place the robot where a patient would be, in the center behind the cockpit’s dividing curtain, before shutting the doors and windows.

Then comes the light show.

Oliver and his colleagues use a Wi-Fi remote to activate the robot, which emits an ocean-blue light as it examines the crevices of the aircraft for evidence of coronavirus. The light blinks on for minutes as it cleans using radioactive UV rays, then blinks off to detect more rogue bacteria. The light doesn’t penetrate glass or plastic, but the crew is quick to seal all the helicopter’s openings as the robot works methodically for 20 to 30 minutes – sending an “all-clear” to the hand-held device when it’s done.

The crew reopens the helicopter, performs another 40-pound weight-lift, and places the robot back on its wheels for the walk back to the hospital’s decontamination area.

It’s pretty clever, right? The robot is an added layer of protection in sanitizing the helicopter. After consulting with Sky Tron, the manufacturer and vendor, to find out if the robot would work in helicopters, Flanagan was told they would so he ordered two for the Life Flight helicopter. He said that the old way of transporting patients is gone now because of the pandemic and that includes non-COVID-19 patients, too. Every person picked up for a Life Flight has their temperature taken and is masked as a precautionary measure.

“This will change the world we know; everyone is trying to figure out what will be the new norm, how to open back up and start moving forward,” Flanagan said. “We want to continue to be a beacon for (emergency medical services) and other hospitals when they need air-medical transport.”.

Fifteen patients have been transported from Memorial Hermann facilities to the main Memorial Hermann campus in the Texas Medical Center. Patients will soon begin to be moved to Houston Methodist Hospital. Memorial Hermann Life Flight serves a 150-mile radius around Houston. It makes daily trips to the Beaumont-Port Arthur area to pick up critical patients.

In order to protect flight pilots and paramedics, new protocols and procedures have been implemented. Instead of just flight suits, the flight crew also wear personal protection equipment.

For those of us who used to watch The Jetsons, we thought by now everyone would be traveling by flying cars. Not yet. Now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we are being taught how to wash our hands and using robots to disinfect helicopters and operating rooms.