ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A small, rectangular-shaped robot on wheels is roaming around St. Mary’s Catholic School in Albuquerque, autonomously disinfecting the building to protect students and staff from the pandemic.
Four more robots have cruised the Albuquerque International Sunport since May, constantly disinfecting the facility to avoid COVID-19 spread in one of the city’s most-trafficked places.
St. Mary’s, however, is the first New Mexico school to adopt the “Breezy One” mobile machine, made by Albuquerque-based Build with Robots, which is now aggressively marketing it to school districts in Texas and Arkansas as well.
“We map each facility and create specific routes for the robot to follow,” said Build with Robots CEO Chris Ziomek. “A janitor selects from a touch screen menu where he wants the robot to go, say to a classroom or the gym. The janitor clears the area, opens the doors, and the robot goes in and cleans on its own.”
Breezy One is armed with an environmentally benign but powerful disinfectant originally developed by Sandia National Laboratories. It fogs rooms and corridors, autonomously spraying targeted places on regular schedules with customized software.
At St. Mary’s, where in-school learning re-launched in August, the robot disinfects the cafeteria after every lunch period, said school principal Rebecca Maestas Sanchez.
“The cafeteria is a big thing for us, because all the students go in there,” Maestas Sanchez said. “We have the cleaner go in after every lunch to disinfect for the next group of kids.”
And Breezy One works 24/7.
“We can program it to work at night, on weekends or on holidays,” Maestas Sanchez said. “It gives us a lot of flexibility, and its fogging action gets into every nook and cranny.”
The students love it. They outfitted Breezy One with a uniform skirt sporting school colors and dubbed the machine Macrina after “the patron saint of robots.”
Build with Robots is based at the FUSE Makerspace at Innovate ABQ Downtown, with additional space at the nearby Verge Building. The company sells collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which are mechanical arms that use customized programming for a wide variety of mundane industrial or commercial tasks.
But when COVID-19 broke out, the startup pivoted to create Breezy One for autonomous mobile disinfection. It contracted with Albuquerque engineering firm Delta Group Electronics for mass production.
Daikin Texas Technology Park in Houston — the world’s largest maker of air conditioners — has used the robots since August to disinfect its factory, said Build With Robots Chief Commercialization Officer Kimberly Corbitt, who is conducting onsite demonstrations for school districts in Texas and Arkansas.
“The pandemic really opened the door for large facility disinfection, especially for schools, which need to disinfect year-round,” Corbitt said. “Apart from protecting against COVID-19, the schools want ways to reduce absenteeism during flu season. Having an automated solution to help with that is very enticing for them.”
The robots cost $100,000 each to buy outright. But Build with Robots offers the machines on short- and long-term leases ranging from $5,000 to $7,000 a month.
For large facilities that need constant disinfection like schools, airports and factories, the machines can save customers money, Ziomek said.
“For a facility like the Sunport, it could cost like $20,000 to fog it just once for disinfection,” he said. “It takes a squad of people in bunny suits carrying chemicals and other types of personal protective equipment. That’s why we’re going after the large facilities, because the robots can offer substantial cost savings.”
The company earned about $800,000 from Breezy One operations last year, and it’s scaling up for a lot more business this year, Ziomek said. It now employs 20 people, and will hire 10 more over the next six months.
At St. Mary’s, where Breezy One started operating in early January, the school struck a partnership agreement with the company as a pilot demonstration site for other schools to consider using the robots, providing a substantial lease discount for St. Mary’s, Maestas Sanchez said.
“We’re the first school in New Mexico using the robot,” she said. “We’re demonstrating it as an option for more schools to bring kids safely back to their classrooms.”