Three-Dimensional Roombas

May 4, 2021

How a drone could change plant sanitation.

I ordinarily greet news of “game-changing food industry technologies” with a yawn, but some people at MIT have come up with what looks like it could be the real deal:

A three-dimensional Roomba.

That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s a robotic drone – call it a “drobot” – that cleans food plants by flying through them, spraying cleaning chemicals and sanitizer.

The quadcopter drone carries a tank, nozzle and spray hose, and is equipped with visual inspection technology to tell when a surface is clean. It finds its way around a plant using laser guidance and route-planning algorithms.

This cleaning drobot was designed by a startup called Human Dynamics, co-founded by a graduate student at MIT. It won first place in the annual Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, which apparently was no surprise, seeing as how, in the words of the MIT press release, “a judge offered to have his company partner with the team for an early demonstration.”

Assuming this thing can do the trick, what’s not to like? Anyone who has run a food plant knows that sanitation is a major concern that often takes up a whole shift. In many places, it’s done by third-party contractors, because it’s easier to hire someone who already has cleaning chemicals – some of which are caustic enough to be dangerous – and personnel with the training and equipment to handle them.

The last part is the only sticking point, with me anyway. Robots taking away people’s jobs is a genuine concern, at least in some quarters. Andrew Yang is trying to build an entire political career around it – with not much success so far, but we’ll see how he does in the race for New York City’s mayoral office (where, if he wins, he probably won’t spend much time thinking about robots).

I just try to remember that progress in inevitable; that plant sanitation is a vital function that needs to be done as well and consistently as possible; that it’s no one’s idea of a dream career; and that any disruption of the labor market by these things is probably years away, if it ever happens.

And all that washes away the guilt as thoroughly as any cleaning Roomba.

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