A 10-day race to develop three germ-blasting robots

The pandemic has been a drain in many ways, but it's also spurred a frenzy of development.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Stories have been emerging about epic, even life-saving development sprints in the days after COVID-19 took hold. Teams working in a variety of spaces, from data management and tele-health to robotics and IoT spotted adjacent opportunities to develop technologies to fight the pandemic during what may turn out to be one of the most fertile technology sprints in modern history.

A new entry in the list is Weston Robot, a Singapore-based robot developer and supplier that, at the time of the first outbreaks, had designed a variety of robots for various markets, including compact surveillance robots with wheels designed for uneven terrain, as well as autonomous cars and even robotic exoskeletons. As the pressing demands of the pandemic began to sink in, the Weston team turned its focus on a critical problem: Using the mobile robots in its product well to aid in disinfecting.

"We asked ourselves, 'Can we add something to these robots, for example, a spray gun to spray chemical disinfectant?'" says Dr. Yanliang Zhang, managing director and chief scientist of Weston Robot.

The team quickly decided that retrofitting its existing technology would be the best route forward, and that set off a development spring that will surely be enshrined in company lore for years to come.

"The first day that COVID-19 was announced to be infectious in humans, my team came together and said 'We design robots, is there something we can do to mitigate the spread of the virus?' " says Zhang. "Obviously, we could not totally design a new robot model at that time. Instead, we wanted to take advantage of what we have already: mobile robots."

Over the next 10 days, the team developed two mobile disinfecting robots -- one for large open areas like airports and shopping malls, and one for smaller contained spaces -- as well as a mobile temperature check station. Redesigning the hardware was only half the battle given that the team needed to figure out how to effectively communicate with and control the robots to ensure accuracy and safety in a variety of environments. 

The outdoor disinfecting robot is essentially a mobile sprayer that caries enough disinfecting solution to cover four acres. The indoor unit utilizes UV lights and preprogrammed autonomous movement maps—similar to how a robot vacuum would move through a map of your living room to clean--to clean spaces non-invasively. Taking these rapidly developed robots from prototypes to a finished product took another month and was accomplished with the help of Agile X, a mobile robot manufacturing company in China.

"In the final product, we do redevelop everything," say Zhang. "Agile X is very good at manufacturing hardware, so they can quickly realize your idea and do product assembly testing there. During lockdown it is very difficult for us to get components from the supply chain, but they are very good at making the whole robot given our design specifications."

The robots are currently deployed around the world and Weston Robot is pursuing certifications to enter more markets. It's a phenomenal example of a positive outcome of the last six months, as well as a sign that development timeframes are speeding up substantially thanks to a proliferation of task-agnostic platforms, rapid prototyping technologies, and innovative approaches to flexible manufacturing.

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