BEIRUT: Sanitation and good hygiene are the best defenses against coronavirus, but constant cleaning and disinfection puts cleaners and anyone they come into contact with at risk of the disease. Enter the robots.
Two Lebanese engineering graduate students are helping their country’s fight against the pandemic by developing a low-cost automaton that has already been deployed in hospitals and homes across the country.
Ali Mohamed Hassan, one of the brains behind the project, said: “The project aims to reduce risks to humans through technological solutions. The idea is to sterilize infected areas and surfaces, such as hospitals, endemic neighborhoods and isolation rooms, to prevent doctors, health workers and volunteers from being infected.”
Hassan and his classmate Abdul Latif Atwi, both 23-year-old students at the Lebanese International University, built the robot earlier this year. The prototype holds between 15 to 25 liters of disinfectant and can spray an area of three square meters. The robot is powered by three 12 volt batteries and can be controlled remotely from a distance of up to one kilometer.
Atwi said the robot is a rework of the duo’s spring 2019 senior project, an agricultural pesticide atomizer.
The new prototype took three months and cost about $700 to construct, with $100 going toward the purchase of a pump that was imported from Kuwait, where Hassan works with a mechanical engineering company.
They have already put their invention to work in cleaning wards and operating rooms at Nabih Berri Hospital, as well as in 25 homes. The service costs between $50 and $75 depending on the size of the job. People reach out to them for help with disinfection through their Facebook page.
“We focus on closed areas to avoid human contact, but optimum performance absolutely depends on human input so all surfaces within an indoor space are cleaned,” Hassan said.
The World Health Organization does not recommend indiscriminate spraying of disinfectant in indoor spaces, based on a study which found spraying ineffective in removing contaminants outside of direct spray zones.
“That’s why you need a human being to operate the robot, so that every surface is sanitized, including those most at risk,” he said.
The duo are currently marketing their creation to other hospitals and hope to build more robots. They also want to equip their invention with a thermal scanner to detect people who may have developed a fever from COVID-19.
“The next-generation robot will do two jobs,” Atwi said. However, the pair face a problem.
“The thermal camera we want costs about $10,000, so it will take us some time to raise that amount,” Atwi added.
Hassan and Atwi have not actively sought to raise funds for the project but hope to be able to bootstrap the project themselves, although they said they would welcome external investment.
“If we are able to expand our team, we can build more robots,” Atwi said.
The pair have had their fair share of challenges getting to this point, Hassan said, adding that public attitudes can be a significant disincentive.
“In our country, people don’t encourage you to work on such projects. You’ll be mocked for even attempting to try and solve a problem,” he said.
“In addition, there are few domains available to help budding inventors. Luckily, we had the support of our university faculty. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to break through,” he added.
Either way, their story is inspirational. What items have you got sitting around that could be transformed to help fight the pandemic?
Note: This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.