MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has designed a robotic system that disinfects surfaces and neutralizes aerosolized forms of the coronavirus, which shuttered countless businesses and workplaces in recent months.
The robot uses an ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light fixture that is integrated into an Ava Robotics’ mobile robot base and does not require any human supervision. UV-C light has proven to be effective at killing viruses and bacteria on surfaces and in aerosols.
The UV-C array uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA, a process called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. In a test of the system, a UV-C dosimeter confirmed that the robot was delivering the expected dosage of UV-C light predicted by the test.
During tests conducted in a food bank warehouse, the robot was able to drive past pallets and storage aisles at a speed of about 0.22 miles per hour. Based on that speed, it is estimated that the robot would be able to cover a 4,000 square foot space in a warehouse in just half an hour, MIT CSAIL said. The UV-C dosage could neutralize about 90% of coronaviruses on surfaces but a higher dosage would result in more of the virus being neutralized.
Researchers teleoperated the robot during testing to teach it the path around the warehouse, allowing the device to navigate remotely. The UV-C robot could define waypoints on a map such as a loading dock and a warehouse shipping floor and then return to its base. The team identified the warehouse shipping floor as a high priority for the robot to disinfect and the robot then maps these areas where it needs to go over other low priority areas.
MIT is exploring how to use its onboard sensors to adapt to changes in the environment, how much the recommended dosage should be and how it should be applied to new objects or surfaces.
Researchers tested the system in a food bank warehouse because food banks in particular are facing increased demand due to the stress of COVID-19 and job losses related to the pandemic. The robot could be used to help disinfect the food going to multiple families in multiple locations.
“Food banks provide an essential service to our communities, so it is critical to help keep these operations running,” said Alyssa Pierson, CSAIL research scientist and technical lead of the UV-C lamp assembly. “Here, there was a unique opportunity to provide additional disinfecting power to their current workflow and help reduce the risks of Covid-19 exposure.”
“As we drive the robot around the food bank, we are also researching new control policies that will allow the robot to adapt to changes in the environment and ensure all areas receive the proper estimated dosage,” Pierson said. “We are focused on remote operation to minimize human supervision, and, therefore, the additional risk of spreading Covid-19, while running our system.”
The next steps will be to increase the capabilities of the robot, implementing design upgrades to focus on how to make the system adaptable to the real world, how it can change its plan based on estimated UV-C dosages, how it can work in new environments and how to coordinate teams of UV-C robots to work together.