Robots That Clean Floors with 'Intense' Ultraviolet Rays Tested in Pittsburgh Airport in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

Autonomous cleaning robots are being rolled out at the Pittsburgh International Airport to help sanitize and disinfect floors using "intense" ultraviolet light.

Developed in collaboration with technology firm Carnegie Robotics, executives say the machines are made to kill germs in high-traffic areas while giving customers more confidence while traveling in the eventual wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultraviolet light, or UV-C, has been used for decades in hospitals, but this is the first time it has been applied to airport cleaning, CBS Pittsburgh reported.

Carnegie Robotics modified two Liberty SC50 autonomous scrubbers built by Danish company Nilfisk by adding AI technology and mapping tools. The robots can either be operated manually or for extended periods without human interaction.

The airport team said the machines can use a multi-layered technique: water pressure, chemical disinfectant and then the passing of strong UV rays.

According to the airport, a worker will initially drive the robot around the outside edge of an area that needs to be cleaned, after which the blueprint is saved to memory.

It comes equipped with cameras to detect obstacles and people, and its makers say the robot will stop if anything crosses its path. Officials said the water supply needs to be changed after 150 minutes, while the battery lasts for roughly six hours.

During testing, now ongoing in terminals, Carnegie Robotics researchers will sample the surfaces of airport floors to determine if microorganisms remain. They said UV may also be used to clean handrails, elevator buttons and other high-touch areas.

Daniel Beaven, the chief financial officer of Carnegie Robotics said: "An airport, as a particular application space, is very representative of a lot of public spaces: high traffic, big open areas, reflective surfaces, a lot of safety concerns.

"Our number one priority in this testing, however, is to understand how effective the addition of UVC is as a disinfectant in combination with Nilfisk's scrubber."

The team does not suggest the technique will specifically protect against COVID-19, for which there is currently no known vaccine or cure, health officials stress.

In press material published this week, airport executives pitched their robotic rollout as one method of ramping up customer confidence in the wake of COVID-19 health crisis, during which the global aviation industry has been massively disrupted.

To limit the spread of the infectious respiratory disease, citizens in many countries are advised to maintain social distancing, restrict travel and adhere to lockdowns.

"It is definitely something that makes sense for an airport. Passengers don't want to just see a clean airport, they want to know it's clean and they want to know it's safe," said Katherine Karolic, senior vice president of airport IT, in a statement.

"Ultraviolet robots have been used in hospitals to disinfect and kill microorganisms, so it is definitely something that makes sense for an airport," Karolic added.

Last month, Airbus executives said the industry could take five years to recover to prior levels of operation, The Guardian reported. "We are now in the midst of the gravest crisis the aerospace industry has ever known," CEO Guillaume Faury warned.

New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is also testing if strong ultraviolet light can be used to protect against COVID-19 on its subways and buses, The New York Daily News reported (via The Verge). The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that UV lamps should not be used to disinfect hands or other areas of your skin.

Carnegie Robotics floor cleaning robots
Pittsburg International Airport teamed up with Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Robotics to deploy autonomous floor scrubbers that use UV technology designed to kill microbes in high-traffic areas. Beth Hollerich/Pittsburgh International Airport