VIDEO INTERVIEW: How robots could help airports in the post-COVID world

Autonomous Mobile Robots can make airports the cleanest they’ve ever been – and inspire passenger confidence in the process


In the post-COVID world, airports may never be the same. The global pandemic has already coincided with a huge increase in the development of biometrics and contactless user journeys within commercial aviation, as airports’ concern with passenger safety – and, in turn, the public’s need for reassurance that air travel is completely safe – accelerates technological advancements in the sector.

Yet facial recognition and a variety of apps to ensure that passengers can complete an entirely contactless airport experience is only one aspect of a bigger picture. The importance of public confidence in every facet of their airport and airline experience cannot be overstated: it will be critical for the sector’s recovery. That’s why autonomous robotic solutions are further helping airports achieve maximum safety for all users.

The technology to develop Autonomous Mobile Robots, or AMRs, looks like being a defining growth sector during the next decade for any space that caters for large amounts of footfall – and that means airports. Brain Corp, with over 14,000 autonomous robots in use worldwide, is leading the way: the robotic cleaners its software powers, including ones manufactured by Tennant Co., have covered a total of 42 billion square feet of commercial space to date. The opportunity to fuse their technology with the cleaning needs of airports in the current climate is too good to miss.

For the kinds of machines used to clean an airport, the advantages are clear. “The major gain is that the heavy lifting is done by the machines,” says Michel Spruijt, Brain Corp’s European Director, speaking to Airports International via Zoom. “When you let it work autonomously it is always at the same speed and the same pressure, because it’s getting taught by the people who know how to clean. It means that the person who was sitting on that machine before can now work with passengers, or clean other high-touch surfaces. It means you can move the work to where it’s needed.”

Spruijt stresses that these robots are not here to replace humans – they are here to work as a team with people, and they will always need people to manage them and interpret the data they collect. “The software has heat maps, which shows the user exactly where and how much things have been cleaned, which helps from an auditing perspective,” explains Spruijt. “At the end of the day you want to replace non-productive hours with productive hours, so the more you can free up your people and use them in the broadest way possible, the better.” Nevertheless, robots clearly have their benefits: in a sector like cleaning with a high turnover of staff, an AMR will never call in sick, hand in its notice, or take time off.

While this technology has obvious advantages for airports, the positives of these kind of AMRs go way beyond the work they do. Public confidence in airports and airlines will be crucial to the aviation industry’s post-pandemic fightback, and there is much work to do: a recent traveller survey by IATA found that 58% of people said that they had avoided air travel this year, while a third suggested they would avoid future travel to mitigate their chances of catching COVID-19. The very presence of AMRs could go some way to reassuring passengers of an airport’s cleanliness as soon as they enter the terminal building.

“In the past cleaning was always done at the back-end of a shift, early in the morning or late at night,” says Spruijt. “Now, these kind of autonomous cleaning machines are almost part of an airport’s new brand values – they show that they are cleaning and that they are there to give the public more confidence to go to an airport and fly. The more you can show the public that things are as clean as possible, the better.”

The crucial role that AMRs will play in inspiring public confidence in air travel is unlikely to simply be an interim measure until fully operational vaccines are in widespread use. Even when COVID-19 is under control, many within the aviation industry feel that the airport experience will not go back to how it was. People will still be keen to minimise contact with surfaces, and the cleanliness of the entire airport – from bag drop to boarding – will be under the microscope like never before. Who is to say that a consumer may choose one airport over another because they deem it to be cleaner, and consequently, safer?