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This MIT robot combats COVID-19 and may soon be in your grocery store

A robot that neutralizes aerosolized forms of the coronavirus could soon be coming to a supermarket near you. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory team partnered with Ava Robotics to develop a device that can kill roughly 90% of COVID-19 on surfaces in a 4,000-square-foot space in 30 minutes.

“This is such an exciting idea to use the solution as a hands-free, safe way to neutralize dorms, hallways, hospitals, airports — even airplanes,” Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, told Yahoo Finance’s “The Ticker.”

The key to disinfecting large spaces in a short amount of time is the UV-C light fixture designed at MIT. It uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light that eliminates microorganisms by breaking down their DNA. The UV-C light beam is attached to Ava Robotic’s mobile base and can navigate a warehouse in a similar way as a self-driving car.

“The robot is controlled by some powerful algorithms that compute exactly where the robot has to go and how long it has to stay in order to neutralize the germs that exist in that particular part of the space,” Rus said.

This robot can kill roughly 90% of COVID-19 on surfaces in a 4,000 square foot space in 30 minutes. (Courtesy: Alyssa Pierson, MIT CSAIL)
This robot can kill roughly 90% of COVID-19 on surfaces in a 4,000 square foot space in 30 minutes. (Courtesy: Alyssa Pierson, MIT CSAIL)

Currently, the robot is being tested at the Greater Boston Food Bank’s shipping area and focuses on sanitizing products leaving the stockroom to reduce any potential threat of spreading the coronavirus into the community.

“Here, there was a unique opportunity to provide additional disinfecting power to their current workflow, and help reduce the risks of COVID-19 exposure,” said Alyssa Pierson, CSAIL research scientist and technical lead of the UV-C lamp assembly.

But Rus explains implementing the robot in other locations does face some challenges. “The light emitted by the robot is dangerous to humans, so the robot cannot be in the same space as humans. Or, if people are around the robot, they have to wear protective gear,” she added.

While Rus didn’t provide a specific price tag, she said the cost of the robot is still high, which may be a hurdle for broad distribution. In the future, “Maybe you don't need to buy an entire robot set, you can book the robot for a few hours a day to take care of your space,” she said.

McKenzie Stratigopoulos is a producer at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @mckenziestrat

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