Smart robots switch from pipe inspection to tackle coronavirus hotspots
21 Jul 2020
Tests have begun using intelligent robots to prevent the spread of coronavirus in busy public spaces.
The machines use navigation, computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify objects that need regular cleaning such as seating, bike stands and door handles.
Once a target object is discovered, it is sprayed with a mist of diluted alcohol. The robots can map the area and are able to manoeuvre without bumping into either static or other mobile objects such as people.
One of the robots operates on wheels and is capable of covering larger areas - the other has legs for working in more confined environments.
The work is led by the Self-Repairing Cities project, a consortium including the Universities of Leeds and Birmingham, and University College London.
The teams normally develop robots to inspect and conduct repairs on infrastructure such as pipes and bridges, or fixing potholes.
Dr Bilal Kaddouh, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering, said: “The field tests have gone well. The robots were able to identify the objects that they needed to clean, and they were able to manoeuvre in the public spaces. The robotic arms effectively delivered the disinfectant onto the target surfaces.
Their new prototypes have been used in tests in Leeds city centre and in the lounges at Leeds Bradford Airport.
Joanna Wild, chief commercial officer at Leeds Bradford Airport, said: “As the airport safely re-opens, we will be seeing increasing numbers of people using our facilities.
“Our staff are working hard to keep the terminal as clean as possible, and we will consider using robots and other technological solutions if that helps our cleaners and members of the public remain COVID-19 safe. So far, we have seen that the robots can provide valuable support to our continued efforts in restarting operations.”
In May, the combined universities team has refocused its research to look at ways that robots could be used to help deal with the threat from coronavirus.
Kaddouh added that the next stage is to make the robots autonomous – able to map an area, identify what they need to clean, and then to go and get the job done.
Dr Mohammed Shaqura, research fellow in Control and Autonomy, said: "The aim is to have robots that can regularly disinfect those spaces, doing away with the need for people to clean them and the risks they would face in becoming contaminated themselves.
"We are using machine learning techniques to have the robots fully autonomous, so they ‘know’ which objects need cleaning – and will only require high-level supervision from operators.”
The Self-Repairing Cities is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.