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New Warehouse Robot is a Coronavirus Killer

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Photo: Alyssa Pierson/CSAIL

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) team, in collaboration with Ava Robotics and the Greater Boston Food Bank, has designed a new robot that disinfects surfaces and neutralizes aerosolized forms of the coronavirus.

The robot was created to help lessen the spread of COVID-19 by preventing droplets dispersed into the air that we can’t see, touch or feel from lingering — especially on surfaces. While chemical cleaning products are effective, MIT said disinfecting larger settings can be expensive, dangerous and time-consuming. It also puts cleaning workers at risk.

The new robot uses a custom UV-C light fixture designed at CSAIL that is integrated with Ava Robotics’ mobile robot base. UV-C light has proven to be effective at killing viruses and bacteria on surfaces and aerosols, but it’s unsafe for humans to be exposed to, according to MIT.

Ava’s telepresence robot doesn’t require human supervision. The MIT team swapped the telepresence top with a UV-C array that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA in a process called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.

MIT tested the robot at the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) warehouse and it was able to drive by the pallets and storage aisles at about 0.22 miles per hour. At that speed, the robot could disinfect a 4,000-square-foot space in the warehouse in about 30 minutes. MIT found that the UV-C dosage delivered during this time can neutralize about 90% of coronaviruses on surfaces.

“The results were encouraging enough that researchers say that the approach could be useful for autonomous UV disinfection in other environments, such as factories, restaurants and supermarkets,” MIT said.

MIT said researchers are teaching the robot to adapt to changing work environments: “When the robot is deployed, it doesn’t necessarily know which of the staging aisles will be occupied, or how full each aisle might be. Therefore, the team notes that they need to teach the robot to differentiate between the occupied and unoccupied aisles, so it can change its planned path accordingly.”

Catherine D’Amato, GBFB president and CEO, said the robot is reporting to work at the perfect time. “Our 10-year-old warehouse is a relatively new food distribution facility with AIB-certified, state-of-the-art cleanliness and food safety standards,” she said. “Covid-19 is a new pathogen that GBFB, and the rest of the world, was not designed to handle. We are pleased to have this opportunity to work with MIT CSAIL and Ava Robotics to innovate and advance our sanitation techniques to defeat this menace.” 

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