Software Development

Robots have joined the fight against COVID-19 in Delaware public schools

The ADIBOT pilot program is currently active in two Christina schools. The state education department's chief equity officer sees use for the bots beyond the pandemic.

ADIBOT sanitizing a classroom.

(Courtesy photo)

When the custodial team at Bayard and Bancroft middle schools in Wilmington clean and disinfect the classrooms at night, they have new robotic companions.

ADIBOT, a UV-C light-emitting remote control robot, spends about three minutes alone in each classroom after a manual cleaning, blasting its disinfecting rays onto every surface.

The result is a next-level, chemical-free clean that destroys any trace of COVID-19 and other pathogens. So how did COVID-19-killing robots get into two of Christina School District’s schools, both with high rates of low-income students and kids of color?

It started when James Simmons, chief equity officer of the Delaware Department of Education, caught up with an old friend back when the pandemic was still young last year.

“He works in the medical field,” Simmons said. “He asked how work was going; we don’t mix business and pleasure, it was really just two guys catching up. I’m telling about the things that are going on and wondering what this pandemic going to look like.”

When two weeks turned to four, and four weeks turned into total uncertainty, his friend called again to check in, and mentioned a disinfecting robot that was used in some medical settings. They began to wonder, could it work in schools?

“There were hindrances, like in order to have this technology in a school you’ve got to deal with HIPAA,” Simmons said. “And so the robot thing kind of went away.”

Then, just as kids were starting to return to classrooms, the same friend reached out again with an opportunity to connect with UBTECH, a global robotics company with a North American base in Los Angeles. UBTECH had been considering marketing its UV-C robots for schools, but had no data and had done no field testing at that point. Simmons, with his deep connections within the Delaware education system, was offered the opportunity to manage a pilot program with the company by launching in two schools. Financial details of the pilot were not disclosed.

"It gives you the ability to now disinfect at a much higher rate which I would argue would reduce absenteeism among kids and staff."
James Simmons, chief equity officer, Delaware Department of Education

“I thought Christina School District was the best choice to give the opportunity to pilot it first,” Simmons said. “We know the data is saying that the disease if affecting poverty and communities of color at a much higher rate, so that was one of our criteria. The superintendent of Christina [Dr. Dan Shelton] and I met. He was on board with the pilot.”


Once the details were worked out, engineers from UBTECH traveled to Wilmington with the robots and spent a week training the schools’ custodial staff.

Christina’s facilities manager, Christopher Sherlock, was the point person between UBTECH and the schools.

“We started with a little bit of trepidation with our staff, but they got onto this technology very quickly,” he said, “By the end of the week the staff was very comfortable with the technology.”

The robots added a bit of peace of mind for custodial staff, who were tasked with cleaning classrooms after someone had tested positive.

Each ADIBOT is about 6’3″ tall with a movable base, and UV-C lights directing rays in all directions. UV-C, a short wavelength ultraviolet light that is a known disinfectant for air, water and nonporous surfaces, is highly effective at sanitizing both the air in the classroom and items like computers that can’t be sprayed with chemical disinfectant. (It’s also an effective pesticide, but that’s another story.) The base has a computer to record the data, and at the top, there’s a camera and motion detectors. That’s a safety feature, because that shortwave UV-C light — not to be confused with the long-wavelength UV-A light we absorb from the sun — is hazardous to people on exposure. If ADIBOT detects movement while it’s turned on, it shuts off. Similarly, a bluetooth-enabled sign is hung on the outside the door while in use; triggering it by going past will also turn it off.

Some custodial staff prefer to clean all of the rooms manually, then go back and run ADIBOT in each one after. Most prefer a “daisy chain” style where they put the robot in the classroom they just finished cleaning and let it do its thing while they clean the next room.

“Part of the point of the pilot is the real-world application, and we were able to validate which method was better and give them recommendations as they went on to pilot this in other districts,” said Sherlock. “The end result was that with either method, based on their time logs, it didn’t add a significant amount of time or burden.”

The staff also found issues with applied use that the UBTECH engineers didn’t think of — for example, the remote used to run ADIBOT had no storage area on the unit, making it easy to misplace. With that feedback, the next round of ADIBOTS will have a “pocket” on the base to hold the remote.

With the pilot going well, and many seeing a (non-UV-C) light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, there has been some question over whether the ADIBOT will be needed after the pandemic. Simmons sees pathogen-free schools as an evergreen need.

“I jokingly say, as a former teacher, teachers are always sick. The kids are always sick. So this is an opportunity to kill these pathogens at a much higher rate, so maybe it will keep teachers in school who keep getting sick from kids, it keeps kids in schools more often because they’re not getting sick as often,” he said. “I think that on the back end, when you think about post-COVID — it’s like the flu in that it’s not going away — it gives you the ability to now disinfect at a much higher rate which I would argue would reduce absenteeism among kids and staff.”

Series: Coronavirus
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