Ottawa firm's COVID-killing robot to be tested on De Havilland aircraft

RAY robot
Local startup Aero HygenX has created an autonomous robot designed to patrol aircraft aisles and kill the virus that causes COVID-19. Photo courtesy De Havilland Canada

An Ottawa startup is hoping its virus-killing robot will soon be ready to give the beleaguered aviation industry a much-needed lift.

Aero HygenX launched in January when a “group of aviation geeks at heart” realized the COVID-19 pandemic was poised to deal a crippling blow to air travel. Its founders have created an autonomous machine that’s designed to patrol empty aircraft aisles while emitting ultraviolet light that wipes out virtually all germs in its path ​– including the novel coronavirus.

Dubbed RAY, the high-tech disinfectant on wheels got a big boost this week when Aero HygenX inked a deal with De Havilland Canada to roll out the machine on the manufacturer’s Dash 8 series aircraft. The multi-year agreement could see RAY used on hundreds of Dash 8s around the world.

“We’re very, very passionate about the aviation industry, and individually we had a front-row seat to the devastating impact that COVID’s had on the industry,” says Aero HygenX co-founder and CEO Arash Mahin, who previously worked at Air Canada and Ottawa’s Searidge Technologies. “We couldn't sit back and just watch this happen.”

Over the course of nearly six months, Mahin and his team – including co-founders Peter Bahraini and Kris Rupay, another former Searidge employee – devised the concept for the self-propelled, battery-operated robot, which has full 360-degree coverage and comes equipped with motion-sensing cameras that detect objects in its way. The machine automatically changes directions and moves up and down aisles without needing any human intervention.

Chemical-free system

With the global aviation industry struggling to regain altitude, RAY’s inventors say the device offers a chemical-free, environmentally friendly way to help boost the public’s confidence in flying.

Short-wavelength UV light has been used for decades to kill pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and mould and is medically proven, Mahin explains, noting RAY can destroy up to 99.9 per cent of all germs in the air and on surfaces.

The machine is designed to target frequently touched areas such as armrests as well as surfaces where infectious droplets are most likely to land, including the backs of seats. Mahin says the partnership with De Havilland will help test the effects of UV rays on fabrics and fire-retardant materials.

“I can’t emphasize enough how gracious they’ve been with their time and their resources helping us mould this product into something that they could use with their operators,” he says.

Aero HygenX expects the first machines to roll off the assembly line in February, and the young firm is aiming to produce up to 200 units in the first run. RAY will be manufactured right here in the capital at Gloucester-based Pryor Metals, using parts from more than a dozen local suppliers.

“With the exception of one part, everything else is proudly Canadian, and we’d like to keep it that way,” Mahin says. “We’ve always had the mindset that we want to help locally grow this.”

So far, the founders have funded the enterprise out of their own pockets. Conceding it’s taken a “sizeable investment” to get the venture off the ground, Mahin says he’s not averse to seeking outside capital, but any potential financial partners would have to be the right fit.

“We are very strategic,” he explains. “We want to make sure that we have the right crowd from a capital perspective that can actually help fuel (growth).”

Global sales channel

Mahin says RAY has already caught the eye of other industry players, including other aircraft manufacturers. He says the company has begun building a network of global sales channel partners that’s already generated a “significant starter pipeline” of potential deals.

But he adds that RAY’s reach could extend far beyond aviation. The company has had informal talks with municipalities looking to deploy the machines on buses and light-rail trains.

Aero HygenX has few rivals for market supremacy at the moment, Mahin says. Honeywell is working on a similar product, he says, but it's not autonomous.

He thinks the 15-person company’s “ability to be nimble and creative” gives it an edge as it stakes its claim in virgin territory. And when reminded that Ottawa is becoming known as a hub for autonomous vehicles of a different sort, Mahin chuckles.

“We’ll help fuel it,” he says.