Robot Revolution: How Autonomous Robots Are Supporting Workers
With the rise of a global pandemic, airport operations across the world have been shaken up like never before. Headlines have carried news of crippled airline revenues and heightened terminal restrictions. However, one of the less prominent casualties of the pandemic has been airport staff, particularly those tasked with cleaning.
The airport industry is in a challenging time and, across Europe, dealing with massive staff layoffs despite tentative signs of recovery. On top of this, airport workers are faced with ever-changing safety regulations as various countries begin to re-open. For these reasons, airport staff have needed support.
The growing emergence of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) deployed across airports has eased the strain on over-tasked and anxious airport staff. The changes brought about by cleaning robots have had multiple implications for airport workers, ranging from greater safety on the job to the introduction of data-backed tracking that changes the nature of cleaning operations.
Shouldering the Burden
With floor cleaning routines able to be managed by automated machines, cleaning staff have a greater capacity to focus on higher priority tasks, such as sanitising high-contact surfaces and other sensitive areas. In airport terminals, greater automation in cleaning has freed up ground staff to handle people-facing responsibilities, such as serving passengers, with greater ease. As cleaning regimens were heightened, cleaning robots were one means to make lighter work of the increased workload.
As COVID-19 increased demands on staff, there has emerged a significant issue with imprecise and rushed cleaning operations. A survey of airport cleaning staff, conducted during the height of the pandemic, found that nine in 10 cleaners were forced to rush essential cleaning work, alongside eight in 10 working without adequate cleaning equipment during the crisis.
In addition, thanks to reliable automation of the floor cleaning tasks, airport cleaning teams have enjoyed a more significant division of labour, meaning that they have been able to carry out a greater array of responsibilities with more efficiency than before.
Given that airport cleaning operations usually involve a heavy amount of repetitive groundwork, it has been intuitive to deploy robots alongside hygiene staff. Amidst COVID-19, a growing number of global airports have deployed this technology to maintain high levels of surface hygiene, keep workers out of harm’s way, and give the public confidence that airline travel is safe at last.
The most obvious safety risk facing airport workers in the past year has been viral contact and spread. In a survey of almost 900 workers from 42 airports, 80% said they felt at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. As new variants of the virus come in and out of airports in the near future, workers remain prime targets for infection.
With the advent of greater automation in airports, workers have benefitted from a greater degree of protection against the virus as front-line cleaning is handled by machines. Not only do robots present a new line of defence against the spread of COVID-19, but they also act as a highly visible indicator of heightened safety precautions and general innovation for both workers and travellers. Autonomous machines can reassure staff and travellers that airport management prioritises safety.
COVID-19 is not the only health hazard that airport cleaning staff will navigate when they set foot in a terminal. Airport workers report a high degree of physical injury whilst on the job. In a major study that looked at the state of airport workers, it was found that more than half of those surveyed experience neck pain, 49% shoulder pain, and one out of every two workers lives with lower back pain. In addition, 16% lost work time due to neck pain, three out of every twenty-five (12.5%) workers lost time at their professional activity from shoulder disorders, and nearly 20% were absent from work due to lower back pain. Musculoskeletal problems among workers, therefore, can have a demonstrably damaging effect on both productivity and staff welfare.
Autonomous robots can lessen the burden on airport cleaning staff by tackling floor hygiene tasks. These machines are designed to work alone and continuously, which frees up staff from long periods of performing strenuous tasks or sitting on machines doing repetitive tasks. This reduces the chance that an employee will develop a strain injury or fall victim to an accident whilst cleaning slippery floors.
The automated trends helping airport operations at the moment will have knock-on effects into the future. One instance of this phenomenon is the ability of AMRs to provide data for operators. AMRs collect and utilize data, allowing managers to assess cleaning routes with a higher resolution than ever before and make better, more informed decisions.
With data accessible in the form of cleaning heat maps produced by the robots, those in charge of cleaning operations can access quantifiable evidence of the effectiveness and proficiency of their performance without the need for guesswork.
As the benefits of digital operations become more apparent, this will benefit airports and their staff on the whole. Deloitte’s latest airport-focused white paper could not have been clearer on this point: ‘Aviation will recover, but it will take unprecedented collaboration, greater data-sharing, and more digitalization across the ecosystem to ensure the industry emerges from the pandemic more responsive, more agile, and more financially sustainable than ever before.’ So when it comes to cleaning, the chance to go digital should be viewed as an opportunity to bring out the best of airport cleaning staff.
Robots to the Rescue
The uptake of AMRs in the airport sector is following a growing trend. Spurred on by Coronavirus, many industrial sectors have deployed floor scrubbing robots over the past year, with 73% of supply chain managers stating that robotics will be essential for businesses in the future, According to a recent study carried out by RetailWire and Brain Corp.
Robots have made the airport cleaning beat safer and more productive in the short span of a year. As we move into an uncertain future, it will become evident that more AMRs don’t just mean cleaner airports but also better staff welfare and productivity.