UVC Cleaning Robots May Be the Future of Worker and Consumer Protection

Researchers at MIT are working with Ava Robotics to provide a sanitary solution for spaces with high foot traffic

cleaning robot
The CSAIL robot disinfects the Greater Boston Food Bank warehouse. MIT

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MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) teamed up with intelligent mobility robotics company Ava Robotics and the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) to create a robot that can clean 4,000-square-foot spaces to CDC standards in as little as 30 minutes. The researchers involved believe the CSAIL robot may be the future of keeping shopping centers, grocery stores, restaurants, airplanes and living spaces—basically anywhere with heavy foot traffic—safe from Covid-19.

A representative for CSAIL said in a statement that the technology was created to “powerfully disinfect surfaces and neutralize aerosolized forms of the coronavirus.”

The researchers combined UVC light, typically used to disinfect hospitals, and Ava Robotics’ mobile robot model, and tested out the resulting machine in GBFB’s warehouse. They found that it killed 90% of coronavirus particles, and the dosage could be increased to kill even more.

The robot model is designed to sterilize surfaces as well as eradicate airborne Covid-19 particles. By mapping out the layout of the space it is cleaning, it can operate autonomously and be trusted to disinfect every corner.

Alyssa Pierson, a CSAIL research scientist, said the robot proved effective in its trial at GBFR’s warehouse, allowing for safer handling and shipping at the food bank.

“There was a unique opportunity to provide additional disinfecting power to their current workflow, and help reduce the risks of Covid-19 exposure,” Pierson said in a statement.

This same practice may be applied to other spaces looking to minimize the risk of infection to both workers and customers. CSAIL director and project lead Daniela Rus said the team is using insights from the trial to make the robot more versatile.

Rus added that the researchers plan to “extend the scope of autonomous UV disinfection in complex spaces, including dorms, schools, airplanes and grocery stores.”

The initial rollout of the trial robot took just four weeks. Next steps are focused on finding optimal UVC dosages, adapting the machine to different environments and allowing robots to work together to clean larger spaces.

This development comes at a time when consumers care specifically about the cleanliness practices of the stores, restaurants and public spaces they visit. A survey by McKinsey & Company showed that “consumers are actively looking for safety measures when deciding where to shop in-store, such as enhanced cleaning, masks and barriers.” The presence of the CSAIL robot can serve to reassure consumers while minimizing the spread of the virus.

Companies are increasingly emphasizing clean practices in hopes of seeing customers return to their stores and restaurants. AMV BBDO is helping to enforce social distancing with Distance Couture, while Hilton, Marriott and Airbnb have improved their cleaning protocols, and creative commerce agency Geometry created a self-sanitizing shopping cart handle.

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Kaila is a graduating senior at Villanova University pursuing a degree in PR & Advertising and Journalism. She is currently working as the Social Media Manager for CLLCTVE, and covers brand marketing and retail stories as a contributor for Adweek.