One key in the fight against COVID-19 is to minimize the risk of infection. This challenge is being addressed by the “Mobile Disinfection” (MobDi) project, in which the involved Fraunhofer experts are developing new hardware and software solutions for mobile service robots. On the one hand, these should make it possible to disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces in buildings and means of transportation as needed and gently with a robot. On the other hand, the developments should help to automate the transport of materials in clinics and thus counteract the spread of germs by staff.
New disinfection and transport robots
The project partners are developing specialized service robots for disinfection in buildings and transportation. The technical basis for disinfection in buildings is Fraunhofer IPA's “DeKonBot”, which the institute developed last year in the previous project of the same name. In the project, the researchers will further improve its tool for wipe disinfection and optimize the platform as a whole with regard to subsequent series production. The robot for disinfection in transportation vehicles is being developed at Fraunhofer IFAM. Particularly challenging is the development of a modular drive support for overcoming gaps and steps. For both robots, the project partners are creating various tools that disinfect by wiping, spraying, UV or plasma treatment. The robots can switch these automatically as required.
Fraunhofer IPA is also developing a new transport robot that can carry various hand carts, such as those typically used in clinics. Compared to existing products, the new development is characterized by small dimensions and a particularly maneuverable undercarriage. Fraunhofer IVV is providing support in the hygienic design of the various robots. The institute is also developing concepts for their self-cleaning. These prevent the machines themselves from becoming a contamination risk.
Improved perception capabilities
Thanks to intelligent perception capabilities, the disinfection robots will be able to clean in a targeted manner. A new multimodal 3D sensor from Fraunhofer IOF is used for this purpose. With the help of this sensor, during commissioning, the robots independently recognize all the objects they are to disinfect and the material they are made of. The object recognition system of Fraunhofer IPA and the material recognition system of Fraunhofer IPM evaluate the sensor data using machine learning methods. In this way, they achieve robust recognition, even if the objects look slightly different in each application environment.
A multilayer environment model developed by Fraunhofer IOSB brings together all the necessary information and thus enables the robots to plan cleaning sequences independently. It contains a map of the environment, the position of all objects to be cleaned, and their material. The environment data does not always have to be taught manually. Based on the work of Fraunhofer Italia, it will be possible to automatically load this information from the “Building Information Modeling” (BIM), a digital representation of key building components that already exists for many buildings.
In future, a perception function will also be used in regular operation before individual objects are disinfected: Based on the degree of contamination, the robots should be able to optimize the cleaning process and verify its success. In the project, Fraunhofer FEP is conducting the first fundamental investigations into how this contamination could be detected.
Analysis of the cleaning methods
For targeted and gentle cleaning, the project partners are conducting tests with the various cleaning and disinfection methods on widely used surface types such as stainless steel and plastics. In addition to analyzing the individual processes, they are also investigating possible combinations of different cleaning and disinfection methods. For example, the robots could first wipe a door handle and then use UV light to neutralize germs in hard-to-reach places as well. Fraunhofer ILT will specifically analyze the combined use of UV and plasma sources.
For the various processes, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institutes FEP and IFAM evaluate the disinfection success based on contamination with both bacterial and also viral samples. In addition, Fraunhofer IST is investigating possible material damage and Fraunhofer IWS the formation of harmful decomposition products. Thus, a methodology will be developed to select the most appropriate procedures for each disinfection method depending on the material and degree of contamination.
Demand driven development
The technical developments in “MobDi” are based on requirements, benefit and economic analyses for which Fraunhofer IMW is responsible. To adapt the robots based on user needs and practical requirements, the project partners worked together with users right at the start of the project. They developed the scenarios that are to be implemented with the robots and derived the technical requirements from this. To this end, they held numerous discussions with logistics and hygiene experts in clinics, as well as operators and cleaning staff in buildings and in public transport. Users will also be involved in the project to develop intuitive user interfaces for setting up and daily operation of the robots.
By the end of the project in September 2021, the developed robots will also be evaluated in practical settings. The project partners will first test them in their respective laboratories and then in realistic operating environments such as in a public building, in passenger transport or in a clinic. They will compare the results with so-called “Key Performance Indicators” (KPIs). At the start of the project, these KPIs, i.e. criteria for successful use of the robots in the relevant field of application, were determined together with potential users.
Because the robots are modular in design and use commercially available interfaces, the technologies developed in “MobDi” are easily transferable to other machines and robots. This supports the rapid transfer of the research and development work into application. Interested manufacturers are welcome to contact the project partners if they would like to participate in the development. In addition to the transfer of individual technologies into existing products, it is also possible to transfer the developed robots as a complete system into a new product.