The Greater Boston Food Bank's (GBFB) newest employee is brighter than most. It's also a robot.
A gray robotic base from Ava Robotics illuminates its surroundings with large ultraviolet (UV) light assembly on top. The UV light is dangerous to humans, so no one can be in the same room while the robot does its job. But this same UV light can help neutralize aerosolized forms of the coronavirus on surfaces and is why the food bank has welcomed the new worker on board.
"Right now it doesn't have a name, we just call it 'the robot,'" Cheryl Schondek, the SVP of Food Acquisition and Supply Chain at The Greater Boston Food Bank, told Supply Chain Dive in an interview. "We do want it to be part of the team."
The robot is the culmination of a partnership between GBFB, Ava and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
It began with GBFB's new CFO, Pranita Amarasinghe, who has been with the organization for about six months and whose husband works at CSAIL.
"He went to our CEO, Catherine D’Amato, and said 'Can we use you as a test site?'" Schondek said.
But the robot didn't exist before the coronavirus pandemic that made it necessary. A small team of CSAIL researchers had to build the hardware and software that would make the virus-fighting robot a reality.
Building a robot in the basement
"During this whole pandemic, we joke that in-house manufacturing has a whole new meaning," Alyssa Pierson, a CSAIL research scientist and technical lead of the UVC lamp assembly, told Supply Chain Dive in an interview.
Boston, like many other cities and states across the country, began shutting down in March. Massachusetts issued a stay-at-home advisory and MIT moved its classes online. The shutdowns presented challenges for just about everyone, but Pierson's specific challenge was trying to figure out how to build a UV light assembly to fight the disease without the lab she would normally rely on. So she got to work — in her basement.
"The design challenge of assembling the UV lamps was not just [determining] what is a good design for these lamps?" Pierson said. "But also what is a design that we can actually make with the tools we have in our house?"
Under normal circumstances, Pierson might have opted to 3D print some of the assembly or custom make some parts. Instead, she had to use what was available either from Home Depot or McMaster-Carr to build housings for the lights that were sourced from American Ultraviolet. The design she landed on used PVC railing, which allowed them to build housing for the lights that could also contain wiring and electronics.
A box at the base houses more electronics that would have been metal under different circumstances but is made from plywood "because that's much easier for us to work with, given our set of tools we have," Pierson said.
Roaming the warehouse
The robot is now at the GBFB warehouse, but it is still a trainee until next week when it will start disinfecting the shipping dock at night after workers leave for the day, Schondek said. "He is going to start his working in the warehouse, roaming around, at seven o'clock at night, and he will be done by two o'clock in the morning," Schondek said. "So it will not interfere with the operation." The dock contains aisles of pallets set to be shipped out the following day.
"We're focusing on the things in the warehouse that are most likely to go back out into the community," Pierson said. "And so if there were some sort of coronavirus present on the surface that's where we most want to eliminate it. You know, we don't want to increase our community spread."
But the type and amount of inventory in the aisles changes daily, especially now as the GBFB has seen a big uptick in its volume. This April it distributed 9.6 million pounds of food, and last April it distributed 6.4 million, Schondek said.
"We're focusing on the things in the warehouse that are most likely to go back out into the community."
CSAIL research scientist
Part of the challenge for the CSAIL researchers is training the robot to navigate a constantly changing warehouse environment autonomously.
"As a first step ... our human operator can teleoperate the robot and use cameras on the robot to kind of see what is occupied and what isn't and they can drive around and explore," Pierson said.
Testing with a human operator will help inform the patrol route the robot will use as it becomes more autonomous, she said. The human operator tells the robot where to move with each point corresponding to an aisle. The robot is collecting video during these runs which will train its machine learning systems with the goal of eventually being able to determine on its own which aisles to move down. If it sees an aisle has inventory in it, it learns to move down the aisle to disinfect it.
CSAIL also had to consider the dosage of UV light that came from the robot.
"There's actually been a lot of research in using ultraviolet light for what's called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation," Pierson said, adding that the technology is often used in healthcare settings. Preliminary research focused specifically on COVID-19 shows the disease is just as susceptible to UV light as other coronaviruses, she said.
The robot is limited by its battery capacity, so the team had to have the dosage high enough that it kills coronavirus while low enough that it doesn't drain the battery too quickly. American Ultraviolet and the International Ultraviolet Association provided guidance to the researchers.
"We believe that a dosage of at minimum 10,000 microwatts seconds per centimeter squared, or 10,000 micro joules of UVC light, is sufficient to provide at least a 90% disinfection for the surfaces," Pierson said.
Why not higher than 90%? Again, it's a matter of battery life. "[Going from] 90% to 99% takes the same dosage as it takes to go from 0% to 90%," Pierson said.
Part of a new normal
The new robot is just one way in which GBFB's operations have changed since the pandemic, Schondek said.
Throughput at the facilities has increased, procuring certain items has become increasingly difficult and it has had to limit the number of volunteers that come in every shift so that people in the facility can follow social distancing guidelines, she said.
But the facility has found creative solutions when these problems arise. One client asked the food bank for hand sanitizer.
"We are a food bank," she said. "But if they ask us for something that they need, we try to get it."
The food bank procured four 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer. "In our parking lot, we took the product out of the drum and had a contraption that fed it into bottles," Schondek said. The bottles, which were donated from a salad dressing company, were labeled with alcohol content information and shipped out to member agencies.
"We had to be more innovative," Schondek said. "We had to try to solve problems relative to the supply chain disruption."
GBFB has started sending truckloads directly to its member agencies. "Versus having it come here and then, you know, having to receive it, select it, put it in a slot, reselect it, send it out to the member agency," Schondek said. She said the food bank will deliver 22 pallets of food this way next week.
"We had to try to solve problems relative to the supply chain disruption."
SVP of Food Acquisition and Supply Chain, Greater Boston Food Bank
Schondek would like to see the new robot move beyond the staging area in later phases of implementation. She said a second phase could involve the robot sanitizing the volunteer sorting area, and a third phase would go through the aisles in the warehouse where team members pick inventory to build pallets.
Another important step will be making sure the robot gets a name.
"I actually want to have a contest," Schondek said. "We post the photos of all of our team members that work in the warehouse and the drivers and the building and facility team. And we're going to take a picture of the robot [and] put that up on the wall as part of our team ... We do want it to be part of our team."