Why Cleaning Robots May Not Be Effective Against Coronavirus

Deep clean or cleaning theater?

Key Takeaways

  • Robots are increasingly being used to disinfect public areas in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • One expert says that robots can do a better job disinfecting than humans, but some cleaning companies beg to differ. 
  • The virus that causes COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through the air and disinfecting surfaces can lull people into a false sense of security, one observer notes.
A conceptual images of a generic, blue and white robot holding a vacuum cleaner doing household cleaning chores.
peepo / Getty Images

Robots are increasingly rolling through offices and public spaces on a mission to help stop the coronavirus pandemic. 

In recent months, companies have unveiled dozens of cleaning robots that can disinfect surfaces with minimal supervision. LG this week announced a new robot that uses ultraviolet light to kill germs. These wheeled assistants can help fight COVID-19, but they are no panacea, experts say. 

"I believe robots can slow down the spread of COVID by cleaning surfaces such as tabletops, doorknobs, and instrument panels more frequently and thoroughly," Kenji Shimada, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said in an email interview.

"By deploying robotic cleaning crews along with human workers, the frequency of cleaning can be increased, and the human workers can focus on difficult-to-clean surfaces. Just as a home robot vacuum cleaner can clean the floor, it still cannot clean everything in a house."

"These robots can lull people into a false sense of security as airborne transmission remains a more significant threat."

Not Your Grandfather’s Roomba

Like most robots on the market, LG’s new autonomous helper is designed to work in businesses, hospitals, and other public spaces. The company claims the robot will be able to move easily around tables, chairs and other furniture, generally irradiating a room’s touchable surfaces in 15-30 minutes, disinfecting multiple areas on a single battery charge.

"A higher level of disinfection is going to become the new customer expectation in the new contactless economy where we now all live, work, learn, and play," Michael Kosla, vice president of LG Business Solutions USA, said in a news release

"LG is bringing to bear its expertise in robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles for creative solutions like this to meet specific customer requirements."

Robots will likely one day be disinfecting your living room for pathogens like coronaviruses, but it may take a while. "For home use, however, I don’t think there are enough practical and psychological reasons to have such robots, at least for now," Shimada said. "In 20-30 years, however, when a more versatile multi-functional home robot becomes available, it will also be able to disinfect the home."

A UV-disinfection robot in a room with hardwood floors, near a wall.
natatravel / Getty Images

Cleaning robots are becoming a common sight in some airports. A disinfecting robot is now roaming through the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a bid to make traveling safer. The autonomous robot named Safi was created by Pratt Miller Mobility and aims to disinfect surfaces with its 16-gallon tank, long run time, and 3-4 foot turning radius.

Humans Win, Cleaners Say

Companies that employ humans to clean are skeptical about replacing them with automatons. "Technologically speaking, at this stage, professional cleaners would still be more effective than robots," Kevin Geick, a manager at cleanup company Bio Recovery, said in an email interview. "Human beings can better target high-touch points, high-traffic areas, and hard-to-reach places."

While robots work well in public spaces to spray chemicals that kill the virus that causes COVID-19, "the tighter spaces of a home make it difficult for robotic devices to implement," Roman Peysakhovich, the CEO of cleaning company Onedesk, said in an email interview. 

Robots also can’t remove virus particles in the air, which is the main way COVID-19 is thought to spread. "These robots can lull people into a false sense of security as airborne transmission remains a more significant threat," Peysakhovich said. 

"I believe robots can slow down the spread of COVID by cleaning surfaces such as tabletops, doorknobs, and instrument panels more frequently and thoroughly."

Hospitals are deploying robots that use ultraviolet rays to kill viruses, including those that cause COVID-19. Some types of ultraviolet rays can damage surfaces, but newer technologies use pulsed xenon instead of mercury bulbs to avoid this problem.

"Studies show that less than half the surfaces in a hospital room are disinfected when it's being cleaned and prepared for the next patient," Melinda Hart, a spokesperson for robot maker Xenex, said in an email. "Contamination can remain on high touch surfaces like bed rails, tray tables. remote controls and nurse call buttons." 

As the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, expect many more cleaning robots to wheel their way along corridors near you. However, keep in mind that disinfecting surfaces may not do much to keep you safe.

Was this page helpful?