Forward-looking: A new robot has been created by researchers at MIT to help fight the novel coronavirus. The autonomous machine emits UVC, a short-wavelength ultraviolet light that can kill microorganisms and disrupt their DNA.

The robot is a joint project between MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Ava Robotics. As UVC light is harmful to humans, the machine is used to disinfect locations after workers have finished their shifts.

A prototype has already been deployed at the Great Boston Food Bank (GBFB), where its 0.22 miles per hour speed should allow it to cover the 4,000 square feet in 30 minutes. The four vertical bars blast out UVC light that can neutralize around 90 percent of coronavirus particles on surfaces.

Food banks have been more important than ever during the Covid-19 crisis, as many people lose their jobs because of the pandemic. Keeping the facilities free from the virus is vital to ensure it doesn't spread further.

"Food banks provide an essential service to our communities, so it is critical to help keep these operations running," said Alyssa Pierson, research scientist at CSAIL. "Here, there was a unique opportunity to provide additional disinfecting power to their current workflow, and help reduce the risks of Covid-19 exposure."

The robot is operated by a remote user initially, who teaches it a path around the warehouse. It's then able to operate autonomously, moving between user-defined waypoints that can be added or deleted as needed.

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation is often used in hospitals and other medical settings to sterilize empty patient waiting rooms.

It's hoped that the robot could eventually find use in other environments, including factories, restaurants, and stores.

"We are excited to see the UVC disinfecting robot support our community in this time of need," said CSAIL director and project lead Daniela Rus. "The insights we received from the work at GBFB has highlighted several algorithmic challenges. We plan to tackle these in order to extend the scope of autonomous UV disinfection in complex spaces, including dorms, schools, airplanes, and grocery stores."