Autonomous robot uses UVC light to kill coronavirus in warehouses

Autonomous robot equipped with UVC lights neutralises 90 per cent of coronavirus particles on surfaces and can disinfect an entire warehouse in 30 minutes

  • A robot developed at MIT is disinfecting a food bank storage facility in the US
  • The bot sterilises shelves and contents when human workers aren’t present   
  • It beams short-wavelength ultraviolet light, known as UVC, to kill coronavirus 

A new robot developed by MIT in the US is being used to kill coronavirus in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse using ultraviolet light (UV) light.

The autonomous machine uses a specific type of short-wavelength UV, known as UVC, to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA in a process known as ‘ultraviolet germicidal irradiation’.

UVC is emitted from the bot’s four vertical beams as it nips around warehouse aisles, killing 90 per cent of coronavirus particles in 30 minutes. 

Because UVC light is harmful to humans, the robot has to do its work alone and is sent to do its sanitising shift when human workers have clocked off.

The robot can map an entire industrial facility – in this case the Great Boston Food Bank (GBFB), a US non-profit that provides hunger relief.

Food banks face a particular demand due to the stress of Covid-19, which has killed more than half a million people worldwide.

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The wheeled robot uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA in a process called ‘ultraviolet germicidal irradiation’

The UN predicted the number of people facing severe food insecurity could double to reach 265 million because of coronavirus.

This means it is vital that hunger relief packages distributed in the US are free from the pathogen. 

‘Food banks provide an essential service to our communities, so it is critical to help keep these operations running,’ said Alyssa Pierson, research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.

‘Here, there was a unique opportunity to provide additional disinfecting power to their current workflow, and help reduce the risks of Covid-19 exposure.’

MIT said surfaces are generous hosts for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, as well as other harmful pathogens.

Chemical cleaning products are effective, but using them to disinfect a wide area can take a lot of time and can put a human worker at risk of being infected.

They therefore turned to UVC, which is already being used to sanitise hospital equipment, and robotics technology so it can be operated without human workers. 

The autonomous bot scoots around the warehouse with four vertical bars that emit UV light, which are mounted on a base from Massachusetts firm Ava Robotics. 

During tests at the GBFB facility, the robot drove by pallets and storage aisles at a speed of around 0.22 miles per hour.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=Kl_XZ0iUL04%3Frel%3D0%26showinfo%3D1

At this speed, the UV light neutralises at least 90 per cent of microorganisms on the various types of surfaces at the facility. 

The system can disinfect GBFB’s warehouse floor in half an hour, but it could also be employed in supermarkets, factories, restaurants and schools. 

The robot is initially teleoperated by a remote user, who teaches the robot’s path around the warehouse, but it can subsequently operate autonomously.

It can go to defined waypoints on its map, such as the loading dock and the shipping floor, before returning to base.

These waypoints are defined by the human user in the initial teleoperated mode, who can add new waypoints to the map as needed.

Each day at the GBFB facility, workers pass through the aisles and gather products for up to 50 pick-ups by partners and distribution trucks the next day.

By focusing on the shipping area, it prioritises disinfecting items leaving the warehouse to reduce the virus from spreading out into the community with the relief packages.

While it’s most effective in the direct line of slight, the UVC rays can get to nooks and crannies as the light bounces off surfaces and onto other surfaces, and can also work against airborne pathogens.

The team at MIT are exploring how to use its on-board sensors to adapt to changes in the environment.

When the robot is deployed, it doesn’t know which of the staging aisles will be occupied or how full each isle will be.

A Chinese company has unveiled a $40,000 (£32,650) hospital robot, pictured, that uses a combination of UV light and liquid disinfectant spray to kill coronavirus pathogens

The robot will therefore need to be taught between occupied and unoccupied aisles so it can change its path accordingly.

MIT is also investigating the potential for several of these robots to work together in teams.

‘As we drive the robot around the food bank, we are also researching new control policies that will allow the robot to adapt to changes in the environment and ensure all areas receive the proper estimated dosage,’ said Pierson.

‘We are focused on remote operation to minimise human supervision, and, therefore, the additional risk of spreading Covid-19, while running our system.’

Typically, the technique of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation is used in hospitals and medical settings to sterilise patient rooms when they’re not in use.

In this setting, it’s particularly directed at microorganisms such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can cause serious infections, like blood poisoning and toxic shock syndrome, and Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that can infect the bowel and cause diarrhoea.

The US military is set to use ‘corona-killing robots’ equip with ultraviolet light (UV) to disinfect enclosed spaces. The four-wheeled autonomous robots would eliminate the need of human workers and complete the task in a matter of hours, instead of days. The technology is capable of radiating nearly 110 watts using a vertical UV mount that disinfects a surface two feet away in just over a minute

The US military is also using UV light against the coronavirus, distributed by four-wheeled autonomous robots.

The bots are capable of radiating nearly 110 watts using a vertical UV mount that disinfects a surface two feet away in just over a minute.

China-based Keenon Robotics Company is also offering a $40,000 (£32,650) hospital robot that uses a combination of UV light and liquid disinfectant spray to kill the virus.

The fully-automated robot is armed with four groups of short-wave ultraviolet germ-killing lamps and five atomising disinfectant liquid spraying nozzles on its top.

The filter itself slides back into place when its not being used, meaning the device doesn’t have to be physically removed from the phone 

Standing at 4.4 feet (1.4 metres) tall, the droid can carry 1500 millilitres of disinfectant liquid and takes six hours to fully charge.

While in South Korea, a company called UVLEN has created a ‘digital sanitiser’ clip-on device for smartphones that claims to turn a smartphone torchlight into UV.

A thin light diffraction filter on the device converts light from the smartphone torch into safe ‘far UVC’ – a form of UVC that efficiently inactivates bacteria without harm to exposed human skin.

‘Far-UVC light has a very limited range and cannot penetrate through the outer dead-cell layer of human skin or the tear layer in the eye, so it’s not a human health hazard,’ Professor David J. Brenner, Director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, previously explained. 

Dr Brenner has previously given a TED talk on the potential of Far UVC and co-authored a 2018 research paper in Nature, describing it as a ‘new tool’ to control the spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases over antibiotic drugs.  

Handheld UV light devices that can kill Covid-19 may soon be as commonplace as mobile phones, researchers at Penn State University in the US claim. 

CAN UV LIGHT CAN KILL THE VIRUS? 

It has long been known that UV light has a sterilizing effect because the radiation damages the genetic material of viruses and their ability to replicate.

Most viruses – such as SARS-CoV-2 – are covered with a thin membrane that is easily broken apart by UV rays. 

Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at University of East Anglia said: ‘That UV light inactivates SARS-CoV-2 is not surprising. UV inactivates most viruses very efficiently. Indeed UV disinfection is widely used for disinfection of drinking water. 

‘Given the nature of coronaviruses we would expect them to be especially sensitive to disinfection by either hypochlorite (bleach) or UV light.’

Dr Penny Ward, chair of the Education and Standards Committee of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine at King’s College London said: ‘UV irradiation and high heat are known to kill virus particles on surfaces and coronavirus particles are no exception to this general rule.’

UV radiation is present in sunlight, and scientists say there is a lower risk of catching the coronavirus outdoors than indoors for this reason.

Keith Neal, an emeritus professor in the epidemiology of infectious diseases, University of Nottingham, explained that sunlight damages DNA and RNA in the virus, which would kill it. 

‘How quickly in affects COVID-19 I have not seen any work, but viruses left on surfaces outside will dry out and be damaged by UV light in sunlight,’ he told MailOnline.

The World Health Organization warns that you can catch COVID-19, ‘no matter how sunny or hot the weather is’. 

A Columbia University study published in Scientific Reports two years ago showed UV light can kill more than 95 per cent of pathogens like the coronavirus.

Sunlight contains UVB and UVA rays, which are those that give us a tan, but UVC rays do not reach the earth because they are blocked by the ozone atmosphere.

UVC rays are shorter are more energetic wavelengths of light. They are particularly good at destroying genetic material by disrupting nucleic acids and DNA, leaving the pathogen unable to perform vital cellular functions.

Scientists use artificial forms of UVC light, called germicidal UV light, to sterilise hospitals, airplanes, offices, and factories – and demand has soared during the pandemic.

There hasn’t been any evidence of its sterilising effects on SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes Covid-19. But at least studies have shown that it can be used against the closely related SARS coronavirus. 

Other studies have shown various doses work against coronaviruses murine (MHV), berne (coronaviridae) and canine (CCV). 

Conventional germicidal UV light kills microbes but also penetrates the skin, raising the risk of various forms of skin cancer as well as cataracts.

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