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Robots are taking over the COVID-19 clean-up job

CSE researchers developing robot to disinfect areas for SARS CoV-2

During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, health and sanitation workers nationwide are putting themselves in harm’s way to disinfect public places for the deadly virus. A College of Science and Engineering team in the Minnesota Robotics Institute’s (MnRI) Distributed Robotics Lab is building a robot to lighten their load.

Dubbed the DISinfecting Tele-RObotic sYstem (DISTROY), the machine will be equipped with a robotic arm to disinfect areas like hospital waiting rooms or airplane cabins. Users will then be able to operate the robot remotely through a virtual reality headset, moving its arm as if it were their own. 

“The objective of the project is, first of all, to mitigate the spread of the contagion,” said Vassilios Morellas, a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “And second, to increase the confidence in people and let them get back to their normal lives.”

Morellas is co-leading the team, along with MnRI director Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, research engineer Ted Morris, and industry collaborator Mike Bazakos. They are in the process of applying for a National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health grant to fund the project.

Diagram for the DISTROY robot design
Controlled remotely through a virtual reality headset, the DISTROY robot will be able to spray disinfectant in hard-to-reach places. Photo courtesy of Vassilios Morellas

Quick thinking

The idea for using immersive technology was spurred by another MnRI project that involves using virtual reality environments to treat mental illnesses in children. Why, Morellas asked, couldn’t the same technology be used to fight COVID-19?

“We wanted to build on a platform that we already have,” Morellas explained. “Because we were looking at the economic effects that this particular contagion has caused. We were thinking, ‘How can we quickly increase public confidence in using transportation again?’”

To save time, the researchers are using an already-built robot from a previous project with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Whereas that robot carried sensors to check the density of asphalt on roads, this robot will carry an ionized hydrogen peroxide mist to kill SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“This [pandemic] has definitely triggered the imaginations of researchers and engineers,” Morellas said.

“In this time, we’re trying to adapt the tools that we have,” he said.

Morellas said the robotic arm will mean more flexibility on the operator’s end. For example, it can more easily disinfect hard-to-reach places, such as in between airplane seats.

While the team is focusing on developing the technology for use in the transportation industry—airports, bus depos, and trains—the robot could be tapped wherever it’s needed.

Protecting the people

Another goal of this research is to reduce the number of workers who put their lives at risk to clean areas potentially infected with virus. Plus, it could save personal protective equipment (PPE), which is already in short supply.  

Morellas believes the DISTROY robot would prove beneficial long after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Its remote setup could also protect those who perform other life-threatening tasks, such as cleaning up radiation pollution or hazardous chemical spills.

“The role of robotics is basically to give us the tools to do things that would be dangerous for a person to do,” Morellas said. “There are many other occasions when you want to get people out of harm’s way, and you might want to use a robot to do the dirty job for you without [endangering] a human life.”

The researchers expect to have a robot design ready for testing within the year.

Story by Olivia Hultgren

Watch, and read about, another MnRI robot built to help monitor COVID-19 patients.


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