A four-wheel robot’s mechanical arm hovered an ultraviolet light over the surface of a chair in an office at the Daily Planet Health Services this past weekend.
The weekend provided the real-world test drive of a semiautonomous robot that researchers call Dingo. A University of Virginia robotics professor and fellow researchers envision one day the prototype will be used in airports, grocery stores, train stations and other locations to kill viruses on surfaces.
Tomonari Furukawa, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, said having robots roving around decontaminating surfaces would lessen the risks of having human workers conducting manual cleanings of an infected area.
Furukawa said researchers have been focusing their efforts on how to disinfect health care centers where the coronavirus is likely to be found. Part of the space at the Daily Planet on West Grace Street in downtown Richmond is used during the week as a COVID-19 testing center.
“But on the other hand, the need for decontamination exists everywhere,” Furukawa said during an interview Monday at the Daily Planet. “We have to start also customizing the robot not only for the health care environment, but also other places.”
Elizabeth Roark, president of the Daily Planet’s board of directors, said she had heard that the researchers needed to find a testing location for the robot.
“Because of COVID, a lot of the larger [health care] systems, they’re operating 24-7,” Roark said. “I knew that we, while we operate five days a week, they could come here. ... They could have extended time in the clinical setting to do their testing.”
Dean Conte, one of the researchers developing the robot, said it was built by eight students at Virginia Tech, where Furukawa taught robotics prior to becoming a professor at UVA.
“We can only test so much in a garage in Blacksburg, so we went to their COVID testing center [at Daily Planet],” said Conte, who is a graduate student at Virginia Tech.
“So we were in a real center where they do COVID tests. So we wanted to see just what the room looked like, what obstacles there would be, what challenges there might be from operating in a different room.”
Daily Planet operates two buildings that are next to each other — at 517 W. Grace St., where it provides primary care, and at 511 W. Grace St., where it has been conducting COVID-19 tests.
The robot was used to disinfect parts of both buildings during the weekend, but neither was open for patients during the test.
“We are still developing the robot,” said Spencer Leamy, the robot’s lead software developer. “We’re still adding more and more intelligence to it so it can be much close to fully autonomous than it is right now.”
The robot, which is 31 inches wide and weighs about 400 pounds, has seven ultraviolet lights.
Given its size, it can be bulky to move around, Conte said. Still, Leamy said, the robot has a sharp turning radius, which helps its maneuverability.
The robot was designed for a February competition in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where the researchers were given firefighting and bricklaying tasks for the robot to perform, Conte said.
“That’s where we really developed a reliable system, came back and we had opportunity to apply it,” Conte said.
The custom-built wheeled base of the robot contains about $20,000 of equipment while the robotic arm cost about $40,000, Conte said.
The U.S. Navy, which has its own challenges with curbing the spread of COVID-19 on its ships, is helping fund the project to develop the robot, Furukawa said.
Researchers said they do not expect the robot, which is still at an early stage of development, would be ready for real-world use before the COVID-19 pandemic passes.
Leamy said it could be used to kill other viruses, such as the one that causes the flu.
With the work that remains to be done on the robot, Leamy said its unclear when it could be put into full use, adding that researchers will have to work through the testing phase to see what problems arise and how to fix them.
“It’s hard to really give a timeline, because we don’t know the problems until we get to them,” Leamy said.