Corvus Robotics made a name for itself with drones that buzz around inside warehouses, scanning the shelves and updating inventory records. But the COVID-19 crisis has inspired a surge of down-to-earth innovation by the Boston company: rolling robots that use ultraviolet light to sterilize warehouses, offices, and stores.
The robot is a white machine with a boxy base that houses batteries, a computer, and drive motors. Above is a column-like light fixture that emits ultraviolet light at very short wavelengths. This type of light, called UVC, damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses, destroying their ability to reproduce.
At $25,000, the purchase price may sound steep. But with a single COVID sanitation treatment from a commercial cleaning service running hundreds or even thousands of dollars, Corvus cofounder and chief executive Jackie Wu said the robot is more cost-effective over time.
“This is something that robots can do just as well, and significantly cheaper,” said Wu, who also offers a subscription service that provides unlimited use of a robot for $1,500 a month.
UV light is one of those old technologies now enjoying a moment because of its application to battling COVID. Its bacteria-killing properties were discovered in 1878, and a Danish scientist won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1903 for showing how ultraviolet light could treat tubercular skin lesions.s
The Corvus robot has not been independently tested to confirm its effectiveness as a sanitizer. But a recent study from the University of Milan in Italy found that exposure to UVC light kills SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
However, extended exposure to UVC light can damage human skin and eyes and even cause cancer. So it makes sense to deploy the lights when people aren’t around.
The Corvus robot must be trained to recognize its environment, with an operator using a remote controller to steer it through the workplace. Onboard sensors create a map of the cleaning area that can be viewed on a laptop. From there, the operator programs a series of waypoints, which on subsequent cleanings the robots follow to cover the entire workspace. From then on, it’s just a matter of turning on the robot, or programming it to start operating at a set time every day. Its battery lasts about three hours, and the robot automatically plugs itself into a charging station when it needs a boost.
One early customer was Wanyoo eSports Center in Malden, which hosts online video games. Co-owner Zhichao Chen, who rents the robot by the month, said that before he got it, he’d do COVID cleaning by hand twice a day.
“It usually took me one to two hours to do it each time,” Chen said. “That’s four hours saved by using this robot.”
Other robotics companies have joined the COVID battle, too.
Ava Robotics, of Cambridge, which makes mobile videoconferencing robots, has teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build a version that bathes workspaces in ultraviolet light, just as the Corvus machine does. The Greater Boston Food Bank has used the Ava robot to sanitize its warehouse.
There’s also Boston Dynamics, which adapted its four-legged Spot robot for medical use. In April, doctors at Brigham & Women’s Hospital began using a Spot machine equipped with an iPad to conduct remote interviews with incoming patients. In late August, MIT announced plans for an upgraded Spot that will use onboard cameras to detect skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate, and blood oxygen saturation, eliminating the need for a medical worker to touch a possibly infected person.
Corvus was founded in Chicago in 2017, and relocated to Boston last year. Its original product, Corvus One, is an aerial drone used in warehouses, where shelves are often 20 to 30 feet high. Corvus drones can buzz up and down the rows of shelves, keeping a constant watch on inventory. The drones are autonomous, capable of navigating, collecting data, and recharging themselves without human intervention.
Wu and cofounders Kabir Mohammed, Jonathan Sandau, and Bryan Monti figured logistics companies would want a full suite of robotic systems, including ground-based models. Corvus had been developing a rolling robot before the COVID outbreak and immediately decided to re-purpose the machine as an automatic sanitizer.
“When COVID hit, I thought we could combine what we’re good at with the desire to help keep people safe,” Wu said.
Corvus is working on yet another sanitizing model that, instead of a bank of UV lights, will feature an upright nozzle to spray a disinfectant mist.
This story has been corrected with information about scientific evidence that UVC light destroys the virus that causes COVID-19.