In just a short few months, the Ebola virus infected more than 14,000 people. It’s now been cleared out of the United States, where only four people came down with the pathogen, and cases are declining in West Africa. But because effective treatments are still incredibly scarce, the Air Force has begun to deploy a new tool for eradicating the virus from rooms where Ebola aid workers have been quarantined.
That tool is a robot named Saul. The robot, who looks a little bit like R2D2, shoots bursts of light that melt the Ebola virus into useless fragments of genetic material. According to its creators, a company called Xenex based out of San Antonio, Texas, Saul can vaporize any traces of Ebola in under two minutes. Saul also costs $104,000.
Many hospitals rely on mercury-based solutions to disinfect traces of human disease. Strong bursts of diffuse photon light, however, work a bit differently. “What it would take mercury two hours and 15 minutes to do, our technology does in 15 minutes,” says Xenex CEO Morris Miller. “It’s 25,000 times more intense. The difference in propulsion is like between a scooter or a skateboard and a rocket.”
The medical literature does support Saul’s work. Studies published in the American Journal of Infection Control and the Journal of Infection Prevention show that the robot can cut hospital-based C.diff and MRSA infections by more than half. That’s why Xenex originally rolled Saul out onto the market–to stamp out nasty C.diff infections, one of the most common, devastating, and difficult to treat hospital infections in the United States.
Saul, as it happens, works on Ebola, too. Ebola’s even easier to destroy than C.diff, Morris says. Hospital housekeepers just roll Saul into a room, shut the door, wait for Saul to scan the room for any signs of movement (if anything alive is around, he doesn’t work), and turn on the beams.
Some 250 hospitals in the United States already use Saul (whose namesake has nothing to do with characters from Breaking Bad or Homeland, according to Morris), but now at least five Air Force and army bases have purchased the robots. Hospitals regularly rename Saul, Morris adds. Saul now has relatives that go by Rosie, Sparkle, Sunny, and Flash.
The $104,000 price tag might seem steep, but hospitals use Saul on dozens of rooms multiple times a day. If you break down how Saul is being used, he really amounts to $3.50 a room, Morris says.
Xenex, however, has not yet shipped any of the robots to West Africa, where health officials are still working to contain the crisis.