Disinfecting public transport through robotics


Qamar Zaman gives an insight into how Robotics can be used to disinfect public transport, helping to limit the spread of viruses such as COVID-19 through public transportation.

Public Transportation and Spread of Viruses

Viruses such as COVID-19 can spread through contact of infected individuals with healthy persons. This has a significantly higher chance of occurring in busy and crowded environments. With the addition of limited spacing it can provide a recipe for widespread infection if an infected person is present.

Trains, buses, planes and other forms of transportation can be hotspots for viruses to transfer. Toilets on trains and planes, buttons, handles and seats, for example, can be holding onto bacteria and viruses released from an infected person. When a healthy person comes across these objects, a simple touch can cause them to contract viruses and bacteria onto their skin from where they can be transferred into the body through openings such as the mouth and eyes.

There is currently no automated method of cleaning and disinfecting environments within these areas of transport. A possible way to help alleviate this issue would be to utilise mobile robots which carry disinfectant to spray at specific times such as when train, plane or bus services are not in use.

Using Robotics

Robotics technologies have come a long way in the last decade and continue to develop at pace in research centres and academic institutions across the globe. Due to the innovation in various modes of transport – from aircraft to trains – over the last century, it has become more accessible and more affordable than ever to travel the world. This has also enabled viruses like COVID-19 to become major problems more quickly than pandemics of the past. Articles published on platforms such as healthcare-in-europe offer solutions based on guidance that limits the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. Although such solutions are key to reducing and limiting the spread of present and future viruses, an additional solution that helps to reduce the spread with disinfectants is strongly required. Not everybody follows guidance concretely. Therefore, it is better to have in place measures which directly counter the spread.

A possible solution for trains could be using mobile robots, equipped with disinfectant spray, to spray throughout the train after every trip has been completed. This can be partially or fully automated which would reduce the spread significantly and not require a human operator to put their own health at risk by disinfecting the train themselves. This option been explored in Hong Kong, as outlined in the following case study: Mary Hui’s report showcases how mobile robots the size of “mini fridges” are able to carry out much more efficient cleaning and disinfecting of the trains on Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) subway (which transports millions of passengers every day), whilst the human operators can control these mobile robots to clean hard to reach spaces. These mobile robots spray a ”vaporised hydrogen peroxide” (VHP) solution which is highly effective against COVID-19 and other SARS like viruses.

Furthermore, the use of robotics needn’t be limited to public transport but can also be applied to public places such as train stations. An example of this is St. Pancras International in London where mobile robots equipped with UV light have been deployed to disinfect and kill the coronavirus without the need for chemical disinfectant. More details on this implementation – which aims to restore customer confidence in the safety of travel hubs – can be found in this Reuters report.

These are just two of the ways robotics are being used in public transport and urban spaces to disinfect viruses like COVID-19. The sudden application emergence of these technologies, especially during the current pandemic, has warranted more research, funding and development into robotics. At this moment in time it is more than apparent that further research, funding and development is needed and that such technologies will become a norm in both public transport and the built environment, playing a key role in helping to eliminate future viral outbreaks.

Qamar Zaman is Managing Director of Trion Technologies

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