Battling COVID-19 with disinfecting robots

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Robots are being used in a number of ways to help fight COVID-19 spread. Lisa Harvey takes a look at the potential.

COVID-19 has created a global lockdown, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in more than a century. Responses in hot-spots have varied from recommended social distancing to mandated self-isolation. While the public does its best to heed these directives critical workers, such as first responders, nurses and doctors, transit employees, grocery store employees and others, remain at their jobs.

One group being relied upon heavily during this time of crisis is the set of people tasked with disinfecting contaminated areas, putting them at great potential risk. To reduce human contact in these affected indoor and outdoor areas, disinfecting robots are being developed.

“Instead of manual disinfection, which requires workforce mobilisation and increases exposure risk to cleaning personnel, autonomous or remote-controlled disinfection robots could lead to cost-effective, fast, and effective disinfection,” states an editorial recently published in Science Robotics.

Ten days to create a new robot

The New York Times published a timeline of COVID-19 that starts on 31 December 2019. In less than four months since the first reported cases, more than 2.5 million cases had been confirmed.

This pandemic hit fast and technology companies are working hard to keep pace. One in particular, Weston Robot, a developer and supplier of robotics, reacted quickly to help battle the virus. The team developed a prototype in 10 days, leading the way for other robotic developers to do the same.

“Back to January, when COVID-19 was first proven to be infectious among humans, the team spent fewer than 10 days coming up with the first sanitising robot prototype and demonstrating the feasibility of using robots. Many robotics companies followed,” says Dr Zhang Yanliang, managing director and chief scientist
at Weston Robot, Singapore.

First prototype from early February. Image credit: Weston Robot

“Using a model-based design approach from MathWorks, along with its advanced tools such as Stateflow, Robotics System Toolbox and Coder products, we were able to accelerate the pace of robot prototyping,” adds Zhang.

Weston Robots did more than develop one robot to help fight COVID-19 and protect frontline workers. It recently announced three new robots that each contribute in unique ways.

Disinfecting robot for outdoor spaces

Business Insider reports on the efforts to disinfect public areas, stating, “Across the world, disinfection teams have descended upon kindergartens, state capital buildings, markets, mosques, airports, and public roads. Teams of hazmat-suited workers are spraying low-concentration bleach-and-water mixtures from
trucks, guns, drones, and robots.”

Weston Robots developed a robot for outdoor use. The sanitising robot (pictured at top), jointly developed with AgileX in Dongguan, can be controlled remotely via a 4G network, enabling the cleaning crew to be physically removed from both the virus and the cleaning solution.

This robot weighs 45 kilograms and travels up to six kilometres per hour. It can disinfect an area of 160,000 square feet with each battery cycle.

Safely disinfecting indoor spaces

Cleaning interior space is often more critical because tests show that the novel coronavirus lingers on some surfaces for days. Experts agree that disinfecting surfaces commonly touched in places like hospitals, schools, and religious sites, can mitigate the spread of the virus. But spraying the surfaces with chemical solutions isn’t safe. One way to eliminate the virus without chemicals is through the use of UV light. According to the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), “UV-C kills living bacteria, but viruses are technically not living organisms; thus, we should correctly say ‘inactivate viruses’. Individual, energetic UV-C photons photochemically interact with the RNA and DNA molecules in a virus or bacterium to render these microbes non-infectious. This all happens on the microscopic level.”

“Wavelengths in the photobiological ultraviolet spectral band known as the ‘UV-C’, from 200 to 280 nanometers (nm), have been shown to be the most effective for disinfection, although longer, less energetic UV can also disinfect if applied in much greater doses. UV-C wavelengths comprise photons
(particles of light) that are the most energetic in the optical spectrum (comprising UV, visible, and infrared) and therefore are the most photochemically active.”

Image credit: IES

Weston Robot also created a robot for this disinfecting indoor spaces use case. This robot uses a UV light and autonomous navigation to traverse indoor spaces. According to Weston Robot, “The users can do the mapping on a cell phone and choose the way points. The robot will follow the way points and stops at each way point till the disinfection job is done. It can also automatically return to the charging station once the battery is below a threshold.”

Image credit: Weston Robot

A robot offers a health check and supplies

Health experts are warning that we must stay vigilant to reduce risks. Contact tracing and testing are a high priority. One of the most critical steps will be to keep infected people from spreading the disease. The Fortune magazine article ‘Focusing on fevers: Thermal-imaging tech is on the rise. Can it help fight
the coronavirus?’, states, …”the coronavirus epidemic has put a spotlight on thermal-imaging technology as a potentially important tool in combating pandemics and protecting the global economy.”

Weston Robot’s third COVID-fighting robot is designed to identify potential COVID-19 infections through temperature scanning. It is equipped with a thermal infrared camera accurate to +/- 0.5 degrees Celsius. It uses the same robotic platform as the indoor UV sanitising robot, so it can operate autonomously.

Image credit: Weston Robot

Image credit: Weston Robot

It was designed for use in areas such as shopping malls, large cafeterias, and airports. This robot is also equipped to deliver hand sanitiser and tissues as needed.

COVID-19 robots are paving the way

We are becoming accustomed to seeing robots in our lives, doing everyday tasks from scanning store shelves to vacuuming our homes. But during a crisis such as the COVID pandemic, we are seeing that these devices can help keep people safe by minimising our contact with the virus and helping to lessen the

“COVID-19 could be a catalyst for developing robotic systems that can be rapidly deployed with remote access by experts and essential service providers without the need of traveling to front lines,” states Science Robotics.


Lisa Harvey is managing editor at Mathworks.

Full disclosure: Weston Robots is a client of Mathworks.

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