Illinois ECE Student Builds UVC-Sanitization Robot During Quarantine

11/25/2020

Ryann Monahan, Illinois ECE

An Illinois ECE student is making a new sanitation device to help decrease exposure to the COVID-19 virus. It’s a UVC sanitation robot named “The Terminator Turbo” that its creator says can provide a highly efficient, effective, and relatively inexpensive sanitation solution for large, high-traffic, high infection-risk areas like hospitals, airports, clinics, schools, and restaurants. 

Currently a freshman, Mihir Vardhan started his work before his college career even began.  He was isolated in his home in India, in April 2020, when he began using the same brilliant skills that got him accepted into the top-ranked Illinois ECE program.

“It took all my resourcefulness to convince Sharmaji, the local hardware store owner, to open the store for an hour for me, to convince one of the scrap dealers to sell me scrapped windshield-wiper motors and to convince my mum to temporarily convert our living room into an extension-arm of my workshop,” Vardhan said.

He did exactly what his future, now current training, at Illinois ECE would set him up to do as an engineer when faced with a problem: solve it.

“When the Covid-19 pandemic struck and UVC-sanitization devices became available for small objects, I saw the urgent need for a high-capacity device that could sanitize large objects effectively and efficiently,” Vardhan said.

He started off by designing a high-capacity, 1000-liter, UVC sanitizing chamber- “The Terminator Mega” – to sanitize large items.  At just 18 years old, he says his prototype got him his first order for two units, then orders for 4 more, including one from the Prime Minister’s Office in India. He also received orders for 8 smaller units (200-liter capacity) – “The Terminator Mini” – for homes. 

After requesting an expedited visa to make his way to Urbana, Illinois from Delhi, India, Vardhan moved onto his next challenge: building a device with a similar functionality that can use UVC to sanitize much larger objects and maybe even entire rooms, for under $300. He had to do it within seven weeks- the time he had left before leaving for UIUC.

Vardhan and his sanitation device
Vardhan and his sanitation device

“My goal was to build a machine that demonstrated the best engineering I was personally capable of before I left for college. With its ridiculously robust sliding and angling mechanisms, its intensely intricate actuator mechanisms, guaranteed sanitization with the encoder-based speed tracker and its cost of under $300, I believe that The Terminator Turbo met my goal,” Vardhan said.

Similar devices currently exist, but they are out of reach for many potential users, especially in the developing world. Vardhan says when produced at scale, devices like The Terminator Turbo will play a very significant role in controlling the spread of infectious diseases.

“With the high rate of spread, there is a huge need for effective, efficient, and repetitive disinfection in large, high-traffic, high-risk spaces. The Turbo offers fast, cost-effective, and highly reliable disinfection while protecting humans from potential exposure to the virus and from long term exposure to harsh disinfection chemicals,” he said.

A critical feature of the device is an encoded wheel that tells the operator how fast they are moving the machine. The target speed is computed and set based on the distance of the UV lamps from the surface to be sanitized. It is displayed alongside the actual speed to ensure that every surface gets adequate UV exposure.

The drawbridge is a solid 3 ft X 1.25 ft arm that can slide up and down and be angled to any surface to expose it to UVC light at the smallest possible distance.
The drawbridge is a solid 3 ft X 1.25 ft arm that can slide up and down and be angled to any surface to expose it to UVC light at the smallest possible distance.

“The Turbo includes features to ensure that the machine is actually working and not just providing a false sense of security,” he said.

Finally, Vardhan got the email he had been waiting for: he was cleared during a pandemic to head to the University of Illinois.  Within an hour of receiving an email from the US embassy, he booked his visa appointment and got one on the first day of the embassy resuming operation. As soon as flights were available, he was on a flight to Chicago.

“I knew that I wanted to travel to college as soon as visa and flights were available. I did not want to lose a minute of time on campus if I had an option to be on campus and I worked hard to convince my parents to trust me and take the risk of sending me, if visas and flights became available,” Vardhan said. 

Vardhan arrived at UIUC and settled into his dorm room to quarantine for two weeks. During that time, he continued his work and shared it with the world. His designs and work can be found on his website here

“I have a working prototype that you can view in action here. I can definitely build more and I would really like to but, to make this commercially viable, I would need to promote the product and scale up production at a fully-equipped workshop or, better still, a factory,” he said.

Mihir Vardhan (BSEE ’24)
Mihir Vardhan (BSEE ’24)

Vardhan is now working with Illinois ECE Professor Arijit Banerjee on his Illini spine. Banerjee's award-winning work focuses on creating a class of modular and distributed electromechanical actuators and developing a power network that will enable robots to be agile, efficient, and capable of reproducing biological motions that today are impossible. 

“This is a dream come true for me – to work with Professor Banerjee on a project like this one. It is opportunities like these that brought me to the U of I,” Vardhan said.

More information about Illinois ECE’s Mihir Vardhan and his work can be found on his website mihirvardhan.com and his YouTube channel, ‘Making With Mihir.’

“The U of I is playing a significant role at the cutting edge of engineering, leading research in critical areas.  Like so many others at U of I, I want to make the world a better place. I want to be the best at what I do and I know that Illinois ECE will get me there.”
- Mihir Vardhan (BSEE ’24)