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.
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.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.