The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Swiss Startup Developing UV Disinfection Robot for Offices and Commercial Spaces

The robot uses a UV-C disinfection system to target desktops, counters, and equipment in common spaces

3 min read
Swiss startup Rovenso is developing a UV disinfection robot against coronavirus
Swiss startup Rovenso is developing an autonomous robot that can map its 3D environment with lidar and then focus its UV-C disinfection system only on surfaces that humans are likely to touch.
Photo: Rovenso

When Rovenso’s cofounder and CEO Thomas Estier started thinking about how autonomous security and monitoring robots could be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting them for UV-C disinfection seemed like it made a lot of sense—while you patrol at night, why not also lower the viral load of shared areas? But arguably the first question that a company has to ask when considering a new application, Estier tells us, is whether they can offer something unique.

“For me, what was also interesting is that the crisis motivated us to consider existing solutions for disinfection, and then understanding that [those solutions] are not adapted for large workshops and offices,” he says. “Instead, it would make sense for a robot to ‘understand’ its environment and act intelligently and to better spend its energy, and this loop of sense-analyze-act is the essence of robotics. When you use the full power of robotics, then you can really innovate with new use cases.”
In three weeks, Estier and his team developed what he’s calling “a hack,” turning their highly mobile security robot into an autonomous and efficient coronavirus destroyer. 

We’ll get to the disinfecting strategy in a second, but first, a quick word about ROVéo’s design, since it’s a little, uh, different looking. Based on the above video, you might be wondering why Rovenso doesn’t just use a conventional mobile base—a Turtlebot, a Husky, a Freight, or any number of other options that are simple and affordable. And the reason is simple: ROVéo can handle stairs.

Those tiny powered wheels with the enormous, cleverly designed suspension have no problems with stairs or even curbs that are as high as the robot itself, a capability that usually requires a much more sophisticated mechanical system. It’s also able to handle other terrain challenges, including this one, which has got to be infuriating (or catastrophic) for most warehouse robots since it’s effectively invisible to planar lidar. 

Surfaces that the robot targets include desktops, tabletops, counters, handles and handrails, and equipment in common spaces—significantly reducing the viral load in just the places where it's most important to do so

Relative to other UV-C disinfecting robots we’ve been following, ROVéo is taking a targeted approach, with the goal of being able to disinfect larger spaces like industrial or commercial areas much more efficiently. Hugely powerful UV-C robots for hospitals are designed to “fry” as many surfaces as possible as thoroughly as possible, which is fine in constrained environments like hospitals. But these robots are just not practical for (say) an office complex, where you’ve got to cover a lot more ground. 

ROVéo’s solution is to autonomously map its 3D environment with lidar, analyze that map, and then focus its UV-C disinfection system just on surfaces that are likely to be touched by humans, using a simulation of UV-C radiation to determine how long it needs to treat a surface to achieve a 99 percent disinfection rate. Surfaces that the robot targets include desktops, tabletops, counters, handles and handrails, and equipment in common spaces. You don’t get that same whole-environment sterilization that larger UV disinfecting robots offer, but instead you’re significantly reducing the viral load in just the places where it’s most important to do so. This means that your robot is disinfecting more useful areas faster with less downtime to recharge. It may not be the right answer for hospitals, but it could bring a substantial amount of safety to other spaces with less stringent requirements.

Estier says that Rovenso is prepared to supply these robots to interested companies if this prototype gets traction. Specifically, Rovenso is investigating deployments in industries like “pharma, biotech, med tech, and perhaps food tech, where it would make sense to target specifically wet labs.” Like other disinfecting robots, ROVéo would enhance rather than replace existing cleaning processes, and Estier suggests that it could be offered as a service for several hundred dollars per week, which seems like not a whole lot for companies that want to offer an additional layer of protection for their employees.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less