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Manassas Public Schools use robots to fight COVID-19 in classrooms

Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 1:33 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2021 at 1:56 PM EDT
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MANASSAS, Va. (WWBT) - For the past 19 months school systems across the commonwealth have been throwing everything, but the kitchen sink at the COVID-19 pandemic. But where vaccinations, disinfections, and social distancing efforts have come up short, the Manassas City Public School system is relying on artificial intelligence to help make sure classrooms are as safe as possible for students.

“We started off with the simple basic things as far as masks and gloves, we had bought hydrostatic sprayers to clean our areas that we knew infections would exist, but that was just the first step,” Andy Hawkins said. “We were trying to find a more systematic way where our children are safe in their instructional environment.”

Hawkins is the Executive Director of Finance and Operations at MCPS. He says after months of research the school system decided that robots and artificial intelligence would be a great tool to ensure that children are safe in the classrooms.

“The pandemic and the virus were in our community significantly so one of the questions that we had was what are we going to do? " Andy Hawkins asked. “How are we going to come back?”

Hawkins said the school system’s search for a solution eventually led them to partner with UBTECH Robotics Corporation, the manufacturer of a portable sanitation robot known as ADIBOT.

“We partnered with UBTECH to be able to have these devices where we’re able to move them from classroom to classroom every night,” Hawkins said.

According to UBTECH, the ADIBOT system provides a safe way to help businesses, organizations, and schools re-open safely by destroying harmful pathogens in areas where people need and want to be without the use of harmful chemicals or costly downtimes of disinfectants or cleaning agents.

ADIBOT systems can provide 360-degree radiant light coverage of powerful UV-C,’s which is a natural wavelength of ultraviolet light usually blocked by the planet’s ozone.

In an empty room with the simple press of a remote, this portable tower of technology hums to life with a brilliant burst of natural UV-C light destroying pathogens on any surface in a matter of minutes depending on the interval of exposures. UBTECH says that the light from ADIBOT is strong enough to kill anything it touches from COVID-19 in the air or on surfaces, to black mold, but is also sensitive enough not to penetrate through surfaces like glass.

The robot is also equipped with intelligent safety features including the use of “risk mitigation” cameras, PIR sensors, sensor-enabled safety signage, and an emergency remote control.

“We bought 40 of these devices, one for every custodian we have in our schools, and they go from classroom to classroom wiping everything down,” said Hawkins. “When they walk out of this classroom the last thing they do is push this device in and turn it on for 5-7 minutes to kill all the contaminants that may be in the air there. Every classroom, every environment is disinfected thoroughly every day.”

So far MCPS is the only school system in the Commonwealth using robots. Hawkins says the school system was able to purchase the 40 robots using CARES Act funding from the federal government.

“We did a lot of research, we spoke to a lot of vendors, but we found that UBTECH and this type of technology have been used for years in hospitals and other areas that had to be very clean, Hawkins said. “That’s the reason I was drawn to this device.”

In addition to the use of ADIBOT, Hawkins says they installed portable ultraviolet lights in all of their nursing stations across MCPS as well as installed UV-light inside of the ductwork so that air could be sterilized as it circulated through the school HVAC system.

Still, Hawkins says COVID-19 has impacted the MPCS student and staff population.

According to the VDH, The City of Manassas has a positivity infection rate of 5.1%. Hawkins says the school has roughly between 60-80 students and 8-10 staff who have tested positive or are in quarantine due to exposure. MCPS serves 7,723 students.

“We’ve done everything that we can to ensure that we are not transmitting the virus inside our school because there’s no virus, but we can’t help where people are and where they contract it when they are not in school,” Hawkins said.

“When technology affords organizations a smarter and safer way to disinfect then we believe that this should be done,” John Rhee said.

Rhee is the Senior Vice President & General Manager of North America, UBTECH.

“With schools, we believe it is a significantly more efficient way to do whole room disinfection,” Rhee said.

He says that the ADIBOT is currently deployed in five school districts across the U.S. with 119 ADIBOT robots in these schools.

“When we say a safer and cleaner way to disinfect most of the chemical disinfectants that are commonly used in the market or at school do contain chemical compounds that are not meant for inhalation,” Rhee said. “Just about all of those things require some type of period where people should not be in those spaces, but with UV-C you can enter that environment immediately without any kind of resting period.

In the past, Rhee says solutions like ADIBOT could cost upwards of $100,000, far too expensive for many organizations to consider, but recently the technology has become a more financially assessable solution.

“Our list price for the product is $20,000 per unit, but our daily price works out to be about $15 a day for this robot,” said Rhee. “That means for just $15 a day depending on the size of your school, we know that just one robot can disinfect an entire school when used in daily cleaning protocols.”

Rhee says the ADIBOT can also cut down on the waste produced from plastics and paper from traditional cleaning methods because it does not produce any disposables. He says the life of the lamps on ADIBOT is each rated at more than 12,000 hours of continuous use.

“Think about the impact from a cost perspective of the number of man-hours it takes to spray things down, wipe things down,” Rhee said. “From various perspectives, the use of ADIBOT is more cost-effective than a lot of current disinfection strategies.”

There are currently two models of ADIBOT: the stationary ADIBOT-S model and the autonomous ADIBOT-A model. ADIBOT-S is a stationary robot that is manually placed in the desired disinfection space for use. ADIBOT-A is an autonomous solution that can be programmed and mapped to independently navigate one or multiple floor plans.

Now that the technology is accessible to schools Rhee hopes other districts add this to their layered mitigation efforts as COVID-19 rages on.

“We are confident to say that we are the best and lowest cost option for this class of products and that’s something that we believe is needed so that schools adopt products like ours,” Rhee said. “Our goal is to help organizations to put in these safety measures that they can afford.”

“It’s not enough for us to react after we know we’ve got COVID in our school, Hawkins said. We’re trying a different way maybe than others have and we hope that we’re going to be leaders in this field.”

If you are a school district that would like more information on ADIBOT and how to get it into your classroom click HERE.

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