With restrictions easing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it's important that surfaces are kept clean to combat the spread of the virus. But using chemical products to disinfect whole surfaces can be expensive, and even dangerous.
That's where a new robotic system, designed by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), in collaboration with Ava Robotics and the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB), comes in.
Their system showed enough promise, the researchers say, that it could be deployable in other environments such as restaurants, factories, and supermarkets in the near future.
UV-C light against COVID-19
The approach to disinfecting has already been employed by companies such as UVD Robots, and yet there's still room for creating efficient models to take on the spread of COVID-19 via surfaces.
The new system uses a custom UV-C light fixture designed at CSAIL that is integrated with Ava Robotics’ mobile robot base.
UV-C light has been shown to be effective at killing viruses and bacteria on surfaces and in the air, but it is unsafe for humans. That's why Ava's telepresence robot, which is fully autonomous, was ideal for the role.
The team added a UV-C array on top of the robot for disinfecting surfaces that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA — a process called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.
The robot is able to map spaces — in this case, GBFB’s warehouse — and navigate between waypoints and specific markers.
Keeping food bank employees safe
“Food banks provide an essential service to our communities, so it is critical to help keep these operations running,” Alyssa Pierson, CSAIL research scientist and technical lead of the UV-C lamp assembly, said in a press release. “Here, there was a unique opportunity to provide additional disinfecting power to their current workflow, and help reduce the risks of COVID-19 exposure.”
During tests at GBFB, the robot was able to drive through the warehouse at a speed of roughly 0.22 miles per hour. This means that the robot could cover a 4,000-square-foot space in GBFB’s warehouse in just half an hour. The UV-C dosage delivered during the test allowed for approximately 90 percent of the coronavirus to be neutralized on surfaces.
Seeing as food banks are facing enormous demand due to COVID-19's impact on society — the United Nations recently projected that, because of the virus, the number of people facing severe food shortages worldwide could double — keeping food bank workers safe is, rightfully, a high priority.