AT&T 4G LTE connects IoT robots to kill germs, keep shelves stocked

AT&T is connecting IoT robots, in new partnerships with Xenex and Brain Corp., that aim to help hospitals and retail establishments like grocery stores keep facilities clean, kill germs and keep shelves stocked more efficiently.

Chris Penrose, SVP of Advanced Solutions at AT&T, told FierceWireless that the robots are riding on the carrier’s 4G LTE network, rather than narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) or LTE-M networks. That’s because of the large amounts of data they need to push, along with latency and speed requirements for these particular use cases.

In the robotics space, AT&T is typically leaning more toward using LTE and potentially 5G in the future, Penrose noted. 

“When you want to be able to control things remotely or be able to move large data files and have real-time access to data and live streaming data, that’s really going to go on our higher-band networks,” Penrose said. Narrowband and LTE-M would be used for applications with more limited data needs and that transmit only once or twice a day.

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The LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robots, developed by San Antonia-based start-up Xenex, for example, transfer data about each hospital room that’s been disinfected, how long the robot operated, and near- real-time maintenance details, among other information. The wireless connectivity automates communication and data transfers to help ensure the bots are working at optimal performance and assisting healthcare efforts to avoid infections at a time when extra safety precautions for healthcare staff and patients are critical amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The robot uses pulsed xenon ultraviolet (UV) light to kill viruses, bacteria and spores on surfaces and can disinfect a room in as little as 10 minutes. It’s been proven effective against Ebola and anthrax, as well as MRSA, Clostridium difficile (C.diff), influenza and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, according to AT&T.

“The data we receive from the robots is essential to our epidemiologists, researchers, and engineering team,” said Paul Froutan, chief operating officer for Xenex, in a statement. “Our ability to receive the data quickly and know that it is accurate is of utmost importance. It helps us analyze how our customers’ disinfection programs are performing, which can have a dramatic impact on their ability to reduce their infection rates. That data is provided to us through AT&T.” 

The robots are already in more than 500 healthcare facilities worldwide, including the Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson, Stanford, HonorHealth, Baptist Health, and Texas Health Resources, and are being deployed in additional hospitals daily.

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More than 60 Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals are also using the LightStrike robots, as well Department of Defense (DoD) facilities, such as Langley Air Force Base, Fort Bliss, Wright Patterson AFB, and Altus AFB.

Brain Corp., meanwhile, delivers intelligence technology that’s used by OEMs for robots that are used in large store environments to run autonomously for things like floor scrubbing and sanitizing. They can also scan shelves and provide real-time information back to the store to ensure shelves are stocked as effectively as possible, Penrose explained. This can be particularly useful when some grocery stores are seeing emergency buying and need to maintain cleanliness, as well as social distancing.

In addition to grocery stores, Brain Corp.-powered robots have been deployed in big-box retailers, airports, and shopping malls in the U.S., Europe and Asia. 

Co-bots and accelerated interest

Overall, AT&T sees the robotics industry as one of the most exciting for wireless connectivity, according to Penrose.  

“The need to bring connectivity, not just for basic operations, but also to be bring the ability to do real-time data collection, be able to take action against that data, and the fact that these robots can play in a number of different industries – it’s a big focal area for AT&T at this time,” he said.  

The IoT business continues to grow, Penrose said, noting that AT&T adds a new connection on its network every 1.4 seconds around the world.

At a macro trend level, “There is no doubt that we’re seeing more and more companies have interest in these types of solutions where you can be able to remotely manage things or bring in robotics to play a role that maybe you can’t currently play with a human,” Penrose said, but it’s not all about replacing humans with robots. “We see a really interesting interplay between how the robots and humans work effectively together to drive more productivity and effectiveness.”

Brain Corp-powered bots, for example, can clean alongside employees during the day or off-peak hours, and pass real-time data to make it more efficient for human workers that need to know where and when high-demand stock needs to be.

Penrose also doesn’t think there will be a drop off in interest once the current crisis is under control.

As the connected robots are deployed, those using them are seeing the value, he noted, potentially prompting businesses to ask where else they can be used. Benefits like sharing real-time information will also last into the future, he added.

“While some of the existing situation can potentially accelerate it in certain industries in the very near-term, I think that will only continue to grow based on success there, but other industries will follow,” Penrose said, citing verticals like industrial, manufacturing, warehousing, transportation, and retail.