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Engineering Students Create Germ-Detecting Robot

Project Aims to Cut Down Infection Risk in Hospitals, Nursing Homes

UMass Lowell Image
From left, Andrew Gilstrap, Michael Antonov and Paul Paquette pose with “Biobot,” their prototype robotic bacteria and virus sensor.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Hospital-acquired infections, such as pneumonia and MRSA, are a leading cause of serious illness among patients, especially those with weakened immune systems. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 1.7 million hospital-associated infections from all types of microorganisms occur each year in the country, causing or contributing to 99,000 deaths.

In response, 2013 electrical engineering graduates Paul Paquette, Michael Antonov and Andrew Gilstrap have designed “BioBot,” a low-cost, mobile bio-sensing robot capable of automatically taking air samples in a room and then analyzing them to quickly detect any harmful bacteria and viruses present. BioBot was one of 21 senior capstone projects that were exhibited during the inaugural Capstone Program Showcase Day held in April at Cumnock Hall.

“Our goal is for the robot to measure the amount of infectious agents on-site and provide this much-needed information to the proper personnel so they understand and monitor the situation and take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of spreading infections,” explains Paquette.

This technology can be applied not only to hospital operating rooms, intensive-care units and wards but also to nursing homes, daycare centers, restaurants and meat-packing and food-preparation facilities, he says.

A People’s Choice Award Winner

BioBot was chosen among 30 entries from 18 institutions at this year’s Cornell Cup USA competition to win the “People’s Choice Award” category. The annual event — presented jointly by Intel and Cornell University and held in May in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — is a unique nationwide contest that challenges undergraduate and graduate students in computer science and engineering to use embedded design and technology based on the Intel Atom processor to envision a better world. BioBot’s main controller for the competition was an Intel DE2i-150 Atom Development Board. For its efforts, the UMass Lowell team received a cash prize of $1,000.

BioBot represents an international collaboration between the UMass Lowell team and biomedical engineering students K. Bala Subhashini and S. Nishanth Goul of the Padmasri Dr. B. V. Raju Institute of Technology in Vishnupur, India.

The group developed the idea for BioBot after team adviser Alan Rux of the University’s Assistive Technology Program was approached during a recent trip to India by Srinivasa K. Rao of the Indian Institute of Biotechnology. Rao was seeking assistance in helping address the problem of hospital-acquired infections that have been plaguing medical facilities in India.

“A device like BioBot would become indispensable for surgeons, telling them whether the room is clean enough to perform an operation,” says Paquette.

BioBot’s sensor uses ultraviolet LEDs and photodiodes to detect and measure the amount of ultraviolet light absorbed by the microorganisms’ DNA/RNA and proteins. To maximize coverage of a given area, the sensor is mounted on a Neato XV-11, a $400 commercial mobile robot platform similar to iRobot’s Roomba automatic vacuum-cleaning robot.

BioBot is completely autonomous — it can perform scheduled sampling of a room without supervision.  

“The robot can independently navigate a room or hallway and return to its charging station without assistance,” says Paquette. “The sensor’s function is automated and doesn’t require user intervention. The robot notifies the operator only when high-levels of pathogens are detected. The sensor can be operated without being mounted on a mobile robot platform.”

BioBot is also relatively inexpensive.

“Commercial single-beam spectrophotometers can cost up nearly $4,000,” he says. “Our BioBot prototype costs only about $1,300. If we build a thousand or more of the units, we can bring the cost down to about $700 each.”

Future upgrades to the BioBot system can include a multi-unit network of robots that can communicate with each other, a visual warning to alert the operator if the unit has detected germs and the capability of BioBot to actually disinfect and sterilize contaminated surfaces by zapping them with high-power ultraviolet light. 

“If this issue of hospital-acquired infections is not addressed systematically, these pathogens could become drug-resistant ‘superbugs,’ causing more harm to people’s health,” warns Paquette.

You can watch the BioBot team explain their project to the Cornell Cup judges.