Bringing out the big guns: MIT designs a robot that kills coronavirus with UV light


If you've ever watched Doctor Who, you'll know that Daleks usually mean bad news (and who needs any more of that in 2020?). However, MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has turned that narrative on its head by designing a telepresent robot that can roam factories, schools, and supermarkets, exterminating the virus on as it goes.

MIT designed the robot in collaboration with Ava Robotics (which specialises in virtual telepresence robots) and Greater Boston Food Bank. Their robot creation can blast surfaces with a custom UV-C light fixture to powerfully disinfect them and neutralise aerosolised forms of the virus. In particular, the array uses short-wavelength UV light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA (otherwise known as UV germicidal irradiation).

In tests, the robot was able to clean a 4,000 square foot area within just 30 minutes, moving at 0.22 miles per hour. These results were encouraging enough that researchers say "the approach could be useful for autonomous UV disinfection in other environments", including restaurants and supermarkets; in fact, it's already been getting to work by cleaning the Greater Boston Food Bank. Who knows, we may well be seeing them roam around one of our local Sainsbury's soon!

However, we'll have to watch through the window after hours, as the UV-C light is harmful to humans. That's where Ava Robotics came in to lend its expertise, in turn creating a robot that doesn't need human supervision.

These developments, unveiled on 28 June, have come at an appropriate time for the UK. On 4 July, pubs and hairdressers were among the establishments permitted to reopen provided that they follow social distancing protocol. While it's great to enjoy a beverage without being elbowed in a crowd (a first in Central London - can't we keep it this way?), the transmission concern still remains in terms of spread on surfaces.

So far, we know that COVID-19 is usually spread through the droplets of an infected person, through coughing, sneezing, and even singing. Heavier droplets may not dissipate into the air, and instead may linger on surfaces and cause more infection. In turn, businesses are ensuring that staff wipe down every surface after customer use, using products that are generally quite effective.

However, this can be time-consuming, expensive, and potentially harmful. Therefore, the developments from MIT are very welcome as they give a potential plan B going forwards.

Of course, the MIT robot is just one of many examples where technology has been used to fight the global fight against COVID-19. From 3D printers making PPE to track-and-trace apps, technology has undoubtedly been a great asset to humankind amid the pandemic. It's not just the new innovations either; thanks to our more digital ways of living, we know how to use data and digital infrastructures to our advantage.

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