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Robotic Technology May Play a Key Role in Helping Combat COVID-19

A robot cleans a counter.

A prototype of a robotic decontamination unit.

CEE Professor Qiang He and Assistant Professor Shuai Li are collaborating with Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering (MABE) Professor Jindong Tan to develop an alternative means of disinfection and cleaning built environments, especially during the threat of a pandemic.

To address the challenge of disinfection, the team has developed an intelligent decontamination assistive robot (I-DEAR) to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. I-DEAR has already been tested in indoor environments and is currently in the second phase of research and development.

While cleaning and disinfection are the key to reducing the risk of being infected by pathogens and spreading infectious diseases, the cleaning and disinfection process is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and can undermine worker health. The disinfection process is particularly difficult during a pandemic outbreak of a disease.

Environments built to hold mass gatherings such as schools and airports can become hot spots for pathogen transmission and exposure, demanding rapid, frequent responses.

To address the challenge, in this study, the team sought to develop a novel framework to enable context-aware (i.e. mobile platforms capable of acting adaptively to the environment) robotic decontamination to reduce pathogen transmission and exposure.

Once high-risk regions are predicted, robot trajectory is generated based on the geometry of the regions and their contexts to within the building ensure complete and safe cleaning and disinfection using short-wavelength ultraviolet (UV) light and other disinfectants as needed.

Both simulations and physical experiments were conducted to validate the proposed framework and methods, demonstrating the feasibility of the context-aware robotic decontamination and highlighting the application potentials in buildings with mass gatherings.