He built a COVID-19-busting robot to sanitize your desk

Daniel Simpson, who studies mechanical engineering, demonstrates his sanitizing robot inside the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Northeastern’s Boston campus on Dec. 15, 2020. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Daniel Simpson has wanted to build robots since he got his first glimpse of comic book superhero Tony Stark’s high-tech workroom in the 2008 Marvel Studios blockbuster “Iron Man.”

“You see this crazy lab with robot arms and things and this contraption that puts the suit on for him,” said Simpson, a freshman in Northeastern University’s College of Engineering. “I was like, Wow. I want to do that.

Daniel Simpson, who studies mechanical engineering. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The engineering student got some hands-on experience during the fall semester, working with his classmates to design and build a mobile COVID-busting robot that uses UV light to sterilize desks and table-tops.

“We wanted to do something that could sanitize desks quickly and moved a little like a Roomba,” Simpson said, referencing the automated vacuum that changes direction if it encounters a wall. The mobile desk sanitizer has sensors to prevent the device from zooming off the table or desk it’s sterilizing.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Simpson of the project. “I just want to learn as much as I can as fast as I can when it comes to robotics.”

Simpson is enrolled in a new accelerated graduate degree program at Northeastern to help kick his robotic engineering studies into hyperdrive. The PlusOne program means Simpson can earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years.

“The impression I have of the robotics industry is that it’s very competitive. People have a college education and they still spend months looking for a job,” said Simpson. Northeastern’s co-op program will also give him an edge, he said.

“What’s so valuable about the PlusOne program is that it gives you the most potential to succeed. You can tell employers right off the bat, ‘Hey, this is where I worked,’ and on top of that you have a master’s,” said Simpson.

The PlusOne program is available for a wide variety of degrees, including architecture, computer science, and pharmacology. It allows Northeastern students to take graduate-level classes while working towards their bachelor’s degree. Students can apply those credits to both their undergraduate and graduate degree, cutting the amount of time and money it takes to complete their master’s.

“Once we heard about PlusOne, it wasn’t even a question for us. It was a no-brainer,” said Matt Simpson, Daniel’s father. “It’s such a great opportunity for him to do two major things. One, get experience and two, cut costs.”

The accelerated degree program comes as many high school students are looking for a way to stand out during a rocky job market badly shaken by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly four million people have been out of work for at least six months, according to an employment report released last month by the U.S. Labor Department.

“Getting a master’s degree right out of the gate is absolutely a strategic advantage,” said Iris Culp, a licensed career counselor who’s worked with high school and college students.

“The world is changing so much, and in some professions having a bachelor’s degree is almost equivalent to having a high school diploma,” Culp said. “The master’s degree gives students a competitive edge and it means they get into the job market one year earlier.”

That kind of turnaround is key for Daniel Simpson, who hopes to improve lives with the robots he creates.

“Robotics pushes the boundary of human ability more and more, and provides humans the ability to solve more and more problems,” he said.

For Matt Simpson, who watched Daniel’s creations evolve from building blocks to a 3D-printed Nerf gun, it means his son is one step closer to his dream job.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun when I’m a grandpa and I visit his workshop. He’ll have all kinds of interesting contraptions in there,” said Matt Simpson.

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