MIT researchers develop robot to disinfect Greater Boston Food Bank warehouse

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In an effort to fight COVID-19, a team of researchers at MIT has developed a robot that helps disinfect the Greater Boston Food Bank warehouse. It’s safe to say it’s not your typical run-of-the-mill Roomba.

“This all emerged out of COVID,” said Alyssa Pierson, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab [CSAIL].

The team developed and built a robot to clean and disinfect the GBFB warehouse.

The robot uses a specially designed UV-C light on top of the robot to kill viruses and bacteria on surfaces. It uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA, a process called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.

“Every bit of disinfection, every bit of preventative measures we can take will help mitigate the risk of spreading coronavirus through the community,” Pierson said.

Since the pandemic began in mid-March, the GBFB has distributed more food each month than any in its 40-year history. In June, they distributed 11-and-a-half million pounds of food. That’s a 110% increase from the previous June.

The robot helps disinfect in areas where humans may not be able to reach.

“These ultraviolet rays are killing chemicals and killing things we cannot clean that we would typically clean during the day,” said Cheryl Schondek, senior vice-president of warehouse and supply chain at the Greater Boston Food Bank.

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The robot runs at night after hours when nobody's in the warehouse.

“It’s actually pretty harmful to humans and can cause some serious eye and skin damage if you were close to the UV lights while they were on. So for that reason, we’re running the robot at night in between the warehouse shifts,” Pierson said.

The robot has shown so much promise that the MIT researchers said it could eventually be used in schools, supermarkets and hospitals.

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