An autonomous MIT robot is helping disinfect facilities with UV-C light

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Autonomous robots are killing COVID-19 with UV-C light.
Image: MIT CSAIL

Finding ways to disinfect spaces without bringing in extra human workers is a top priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help companies clean their facilities without putting team members at risk, MIT teamed up with Ava Robotics to create a unique solution.

The duo has engineered an autonomous robot that disinfects rooms with UV-C light. While the system isn’t perfect just yet, it’s already capable of killing 90 percent of coronavirus particles without the need for a human operator. As the pandemic continues, it could be an invaluable ally in the fight against COVID-19.

Killer Light

Sometimes, the thought of robots working autonomously can be unnerving. Other times, humans can take a deep breath knowing that a robot is keeping them out of a potentially harmful situation. That’s precisely the case with MIT’s UV-C robot.

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It hails from the university’s well-known Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Researchers mounted a custom UV-C light fixture to a mobile robotic base created by Ava Robotics. The unit was then deployed to the Greater Boston Food Bank for a test run.

Operating at a speed of 0.22 miles per hour, the bot is able to cover about 4,000 square feet in just 30 minutes. To put it in perspective, that’s the size of the Greater Boston Food Bank’s entire warehouse. Throughout the process, the bot’s UV-C lights kill about 90 percent of coronavirus particles on surfaces.

Emerging research continues to suggest that UV-C light is a capable disinfectant. It is able to neutralize viral particles both on surfaces and in the air. Unfortunately, it’s also dangerous to humans. According to the World Health Organization, UV-C is the “most damaging type of UV radiation.”

While that means it excels at stopping germs from reproducing, it can also be harmful to humans by promoting the development of skin cancer and damaging DNA.

Human-Free Operation

Since CSAIL’s bot uses UV-C light to disinfect surfaces, the research team made autonomous operation a priority. The team notes that the robot initially needs to be operated by a remote human user so that it can learn the layout of a space.

Afterward, it is capable of operating autonomously. That means the robot can routinely clean a facility when it is closed without putting anyone in danger.

As of now, the bot is operational, but it isn’t perfect.

CSAIL researchers continue to investigate ways that it can be improved. Alyssa Pierson, technical lead on the project, says, “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.”

Of course, MIT isn’t the only group that sees the potential of UV-C light as a disinfectant. New York City’s MTA is currently testing the use of UV light boxes in its subway cars and buses. Meanwhile, light-based virus killing machines are also used to disinfect places like hospital rooms and airplanes.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, autonomous UV-C disinfection could become part of the new normal. The CSAIL team envisions it being used in schools, grocery stores, and other high-traffic areas.

Thanks to its ability to operate autonomously, it could do so while such facilities are closed at night. Better yet, no human workers would need to be on-site to oversee the process.

CSAIL director Daniela Rus says, “We plan to tackle these [challenges] in order to extend the scope of autonomous UV disinfection in complex spaces.”

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