UMN MnRI scientists to build automated robotics system for sanitation and disinfection

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (04/24/2020) — A team led by Mike Bazakos, Vassilios Morellas, Ted Morris, and Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos has begun development of the DISinfecting Tele-RObotic sYstem (DISTROY). DISTROY, when completed, will be able to automate disinfection and sanitization within several environments. The goal of the robotics system is to limit human exposure while freeing medical personnel and other staff from performing these repetitive tasks.

“To help control the spread of COVID-19 there is an urgent need for thorough sanitation and disinfection of high asset facilities and equipment,” the DISTROY team urges. When more information regarding the viral spread became available, CSE scientists and faculty with a variety of expertise (ranging from computer science to public health) joined to complete this project.

“Since we want to get an initial prototype out quickly, we need to adapt existing technologies while still minimizing costs, handle the required payloads, and have it be simple to use and replace parts, if necessary,” Prof. Morellas explained. He mentioned that limitations in other commercial systems have guided decision making. Some systems are too large, too expensive, or employ suboptimal tech.

The team is using this opportunity to develop a seamless and natural Human-Robot coexistence between operator and machine. Utilizing Human-Computer Interfaces (HCI) based on gestures and activity, 3D depth sensor technologies for environmental perception, and remote control protocol will allow the robotics system to adapt to many different environments. To reduce 'simulator sickness', disorientation, and improve safety, the operator can still see (and hence, reference) their actual surroundings. A natural interface allows human operators to complete sanitization tasks in the same way as if they were to be in the actual environment.

Additionally, DISTROY will feature “non-verbal capabilities for instructing robot companions and/or assistants by demonstration or teleoperation,” the team urges. The system will be able to respond correctly to operator gestures and be able to recognize both intentions and immediate situational needs. 

The team predicts that the development of HCI and mimicry technology will be adaptable to other robotics systems. 

“For robots to enter the daily life of humans, and to successfully interact with them in a natural manner... robots must learn to recognize and understand our non-verbal signaled intentions,” the team spoke on the utility of this technology, “once developed, the approach could be quite economically implemented and soon find itself readily adapted… [in] other high-risk, dangerous settings.”

For now, the DISTROY team is focusing on environments in the transportation sector, such as terminals and public transport vehicles.

“The impact on restoring public confidence within this realm is profound,” Morellas urged. He also mentioned that they won’t stop there, citing uses in clinical environments or patient/elderly care.

Morellas showed confidence in the team’s efforts, saying, “fortunately, we will have research team members who have expertise in industrial health and hygiene that will drive the evaluative component as well as robotic system design aspects of the proposal.” The team expects to have an ultimate design finished for testing and demonstration within a year.