Swiss robots use UV light to zap viruses aboard passenger planes

One robot can disinfect a single-aisled plane in 13 minutes, start to finish, though larger planes take longer. PHOTO: REUTERS

ZURICH (REUTERS) - A robot armed with virus-killing ultraviolet light is being tested on Swiss airplanes, yet another idea aiming to restore passenger confidence and spare the travel industry more pandemic pain.

UVeya, a Swiss start-up, is conducting the trials of the robots with Dubai-based airport services company Dnata inside Embraer jets from Helvetic Airways, a charter airline owned by Swiss billionaire Martin Ebner.

Aircraft-makers still must certify the devices and are studying the impact their ultraviolet light may have on interior upholstery, which could fade after many disinfections, UVeya co-founder Jodoc Elmiger said.

Still, he is hopeful that robot cleaners will reduce the fear of flying, even as Covid-19 circulates.

"This is a proven technology, it's been used for over 50 years in hospitals and laboratories, it's very efficient," Mr Elmiger said on Wednesday (March 31). "It doesn't leave any trace or residue."

Mr Elmiger's team has built three prototypes so far, one of which he demonstrated inside a Helvetic jet at the Zurich Airport, where traffic plunged 75 per cent last year.

The robot's lights, mounted on a crucifix-shaped frame, cast everything in a soft-blue glow as it slowly moved up the Embraer's aisle. One robot can disinfect a single-aisled plane in 13 minutes, start to finish, though larger planes take longer.

Dnata executives hope airplane makers will sign off on the robots - Elmiger estimates they will sell for 15,000 Swiss francs (S$21,339) or so - as governments require new measures to ensure air travellers do not fall sick.

"We were looking for a sustainable, and also environmentally friendly solution, to cope with those requests," said Mr Lukas Gyger, Dnata's chief operating officer in Switzerland.

While privately owned Helvetic has not needed bailouts like much of the industry, its business has also been gutted, with its fleet sitting largely silently in hangars. UVeya's ultraviolet robots may help change that, said Helvetic spokesman Mehdi Guenin.

"If our passengers, if our crew know our aircraft are safe - that there are no viruses or bacteria - it could help them to fly again," Mr Guenin said.

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