TerraSentia is a small, semi-autonomous robot that
moves nimbly on the ground. A team of these robots work together,
combining the speed and power of technology with the attention to
detail of human labor.
“We made a good robotic platform. It has wheels, but it didn't have
any arms; it was just moving around,” says Chowdhary, assistant
professor of agricultural and biological engineering in the College
of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and The
Grainger College of Engineering at U of I.
So Chowdhary strengthened his collaboration with Kris Hauser and
Girish Krishnan, both professors in Grainger Engineering.
“Essentially, with the COVID-19 crisis, two things happened. One is
the urgent need to keep healthcare workers safe from sick patients,”
Chowdhary says. “The second, medium-term need is enabling more
diversity in our food systems to accommodate social distancing and
disrupted food chains. In some places, fruit is rotting on farms
because they're not able to get people to do the work. And Illinois,
while being a top agricultural state, still has very limited fruit
and vegetable growing capacity”
Chowdhary’s team accelerated the work to make a robot that can
perform tasks in the field or in the hospital, keeping people out of
harm’s way and filling labor gaps. They partnered with Krishnan,
assistant professor in industrial and enterprise systems engineering
and a leading expert on soft robotic arms and manipulators, to
design a hybrid soft arm for field robots. Together, the team plans
to test a prototype on picking cherry tomatoes and blueberries this
summer at the Center for Digital Agriculture’s autonomous farm, and
they expect to have the robots ready for farm work next year.
“That’s an aggressive plan,” Chowdhary says. “But we need to move
Chowdhary and his collaborators also saw a clear need in the
“Healthcare professionals who work with COVID-19 patients have a
higher risk of being exposed to infection. Those individuals are our
first line of defense. If they start getting sick, it’s difficult,”
One way to limit exposure to the coronavirus is to disinfect rooms
and surfaces. Robots already exist that can disinfect a room by
filling it with UV light for 20 minutes. But the light is harmful to
human skin, so people have to leave while the robot works.
Chowdhary teamed up with Hauser, associate professor in the
Department of Computer Science and the Department of Electrical and
Computer Engineering at U of I, to develop technologies that use UV
lights, wiping, or other mechanisms for disinfection. Hauser is a
renowned expert in health-care robotics and was already working on
wiping and disinfection robots.
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The researchers partnered with EarthSense, a start-up
company in U of I Research Park that Chowdhary co-founded, to
manufacture the robots and scale up the technology for production.
“The technology that works is the one that scales. It
doesn't have to be optimal or perfect,” Chowdhary says. “Sometimes
we forget this as scientists; we focus on the perfect solution.
Because of the urgent need, we now have to focus on scaling up.”
Chowdhary’s group will work on localization and mapping technology
for enabling the robots to work close to humans as they move around
in a hospital environment. A cloud-based system will make the robots
traceable, showing which areas have been disinfected.
“At Carle Health we welcome advancements like this that help us stay
firmly focused on caring for our patients while keeping healthcare
providers and our environmental services staff safe,” says Lynne
Barnes, Carle senior vice president of facilities. “Times like this,
especially, require openness to new ideas, and this idea certainly
would have helpful applications in a healthcare setting."
The robots are not limited to hospitals; they could work at schools,
universities, offices, restaurants, airports, or any high-traffic
places that need constant disinfection.
Chowdhary always envisioned that TerraSentia would move beyond
agricultural applications, perhaps five or six years in the future.
But with the COVID-19 crisis, he and his colleagues felt compelled
to bring the technology forward as quickly as possible.
“COVID-19 isn’t looking like it’s going to disappear any time soon,
and there will be other diseases in the future, so the need for
these robots will continue,” he points out.
Expanding TerraSentia applications is possible because of
cross-campus collaborations among U of I experts from ACES,
Grainger, and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Chowdhary
“We are able to do this work because this great institution brings
all these different experts together so we can team up and safely
step out of our comfort zone,” he concludes.
The United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science
Foundation funded the research.
[Source: Girish Chowdhary,
Writer: Marianne Stein]