In effort to fight COVID-19, MIT robot gets to work disinfecting The Greater Boston Food Bank

Darrell Etherington

MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) has put one of its research projects to work providing disinfection services for The Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB), in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and still allow the nonprofit to provide services to its patrons. The CSAIL-designed robotic system, which was created in partnership with Ava Robotics, can not only disinfect surfaces that might have come in contact with the novel coronavirus, but also wipe out its aerosolized forms that might be present in the air, the lab says.

CSAIL's robotic cleaning system goes well beyond your run-of-the-mill Roomba: It employs UV light for a fully automated clean that can be done free of any human oversight, which is key, because UV light when used in the strength required for surface and airborne disinfection can be harmful to any people present.

The team behind the design took one of Ava's telepresence robots, removed the top, which normally houses the screen to display a remote operator, and replaced it with a UVC light array. Via cameras and sensors, the robot can map an indoor space, then navigate designed waypoints within that mapped area and disinfect as it goes, keeping track of the areas it has to disinfect. In operation, after its autonomous mapping exercise, human remote operators showed it the path that people would normally traverse in the space to define priority disinfection zones.

The system is flexible so that it can handle re-mapped routes, which is required because the areas of the GBFB warehouse that need to be traversed can change daily as food comes in and food goes out, with stock stored on different shelves. Eventually, the team wants to develop more automated ways for the modified telepresence robots to use their suite of sensors to figure out which areas are priority for disinfection based on foot traffic and changing real-world conditions; for now, it can easily be manually adjusted to accommodate shifts.

This project focused specifically on use at the GBFB, a priority resource especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but MIT CSAIL's researchers envision similar systems being put to use to cover a range of complex spaces that require frequent disinfection, including grocery stores, dorms, schools and airplanes.