FLOWER MOUND, Texas — It’s likely been a long time since most people have thought much about the term "VCR," but thanks to a North Texan it’s getting a robotic new meaning that could make protection from viruses safer.
Oh yeah, and the person creating this change is only 14 years old!
Flower Mound Marcus ninth-grader Bhavana Katta is putting the finishing touches on the first version of her creation: the Virus Combat Robot, or VCR for short.
On a Friday afternoon, she used her tablet-based controls to roll the robot, which stands about five feet tall, into the Marcus High School library, understandably turning heads from the students inside in the process. The bot is something akin to the Rosie character on the old cartoon series "The Jetsons," with a boxy body sitting atop wheels, a white head with a human-like face on top, and two large foam arms falling at its sides with high-tech looking fingertips.
Katta explained that the arms were made using old pool noodles as one raised up in response to her controls.
“These are the UV lights and this is the disinfectant sprayer,” she said, pointing to those fingertips that lit up with a blue light.
The VCR uses two web cameras, one in the head and the other in the body, to help the user navigate it remotely from a tablet computer. It can then roll through areas and spray a sanitizing disinfectant from its fingertips onto objects like furniture, surfaces, and walls - really anywhere you’d need to disinfect.
Katta said she didn’t really make the robot for a class or anything like that; rather, she made it as a solution to a problem she saw in her own school as the COVID-19 pandemic was still at its heights and she and her classmates were returning to in-person learning.
“I saw some of my staff members at school disinfecting chairs and desks, so I thought instead of them that this robot could do it,” she said.
Katta worried about all of the extra sanitizers being used exposing the people using them to harsh, even dangerous chemicals for prolonged amounts of time.
So in November, Katta decided to use her passion for things like engineering, science, and computer design to create a robot that would allow for safer use of those chemicals, or of even more hazardous chemicals that people could be exposed to in virus responses elsewhere.
Katta said she designed the mechanical components of the VCR all the way down to the web-based controls she uses to navigate it. Of course, she said she got some help from her dad to do some of the more dangerous creation like the bending of the PVC for the body, and Katta said her little brother actually 3-D mapped and printed the face for the VCR; the young man is also currently working on facial recognition software for future versions of the bot.
Katta also included speakers on the VCR so the user can talk to people who may be in an area that needs to be sanitized, as well as a hand sanitizer dispenser in the bot’s belly so they can de-germ themselves on the way out the door.
Not bad for a creation she’s whipped up in about seven months.
“Usually, I just wanna build things in my free time like mix things like school and robotics and stem,” said Katta.
Now that it’s up and running, Katta said she’s considering entering the VCR into some competitions and working on next steps for it. Ultimately, she said she’d like to be able to give it or more units like it to her Lewisville ISD school so staff can put it to use and have it on hand in case of future pandemic or viral outbreak situations.
“Yeah, I am proud of her,” said Katta’s mom, Gayatri Katta. “She is very creative and innovative.”
As for the innovative young teen, she moves on to the Marcus High School campus next year where she’s already eyeballing their robotics and engineering programs. She said she’s also working on other creations of her own as well as continuing to improve the VCR.
“I want to be a businesswoman or an inventor,” said Katta.
It seems she’s already well on her way. She's just 14 and already reviving the term "VCR" in perhaps its most important form yet.