Aug 10 2020

Clean Sweep: How Sanitization Drones Can Improve Campus Safety

On a post-pandemic campus, could drones hold the key to sanitation?

In a post-pandemic world, some forward-thinking technologists believe drones could help ensure better campus hygiene and safety.

The Spanish Army has been testing whether crop-spraying capabilities, already used in agriculture, might enable drones to disinfect large outdoor areas. Private companies are looking to do the same in indoor spaces such as Broadway theaters. Could colleges also apply these techniques?

Some hope that small, nimble drones could disinfect classrooms and lecture halls faster and cheaper than human crews. Others imagine drones (also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) scanning crowds to check for people with elevated body temperatures or to enforce social distancing.

All these uses are technically feasible, experts say. But it will take some serious engineering to make it happen.

The Need for Speed in Sanitization

At the University of Michigan, Aerospace Engineering Professor Ella Atkins envisions a school using UAVs to clean learning spaces.

“If the drone can pop up above the tables and chairs and spray a fast-drying solution, just zipping back and forth in a regular pattern, there’s no way a human could do that nearly as fast. That has real possibilities,” says Atkins, who is an IEEE senior member. 

A small drone likely couldn’t carry enough cleaning fluid to get the job done; it would be too heavy. But running a lightweight hose from the drone back to a bucket of solution introduces challenges. “It would have to choose its path so that it didn’t wind the hose around chairs and tables,” Atkins explains.

This speaks to larger issues of indoor navigation. UAVs use GPS when spraying pesticides over crops, but small indoor spaces would require something more precise — perhaps a combination of video and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors to help drones identify and navigate to desks, chairs and other surfaces.

“You’d need data to map the spaces, and you’d need a virtual model to recognize where it can and can’t go,” says Fredric Vivian Van Freeman, an adjunct professor at Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Freeman has used drones to model indoor spaces for virtual reality experiences and sees promise in the notion of UAVs supporting college hygiene. “This could potentially be a way to clean these spaces very efficiently,” he says.

How to Disinfect Open Spaces

While some imagine sensor-enabled drones checking for physical symptoms of COVID-19, experts have doubts. It would be easier and cheaper, they say, to implement permanent scanning infrastructure at building entrances. Others envision outdoor spaces as a more likely front line for using drones.

“There are spaces where you have a lot of students congregating, maybe moving from one building to another, and that open space could be disinfected by drones,” says Kelly Cohen, interim head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Cincinnati.

Drones could also be “eyes in the sky” supporting campus regulations affecting health and safety. “You could detect people not social distancing, not wearing masks,” Cohen says. “If you could monitor that all across campus, minute by minute, that would be very helpful.”

Colleges that go that route will need to tread gently around student sensitivities.

“There are things the community would think are fine, like cleaning and swabbing,” Atkins says. “When you start to talk about campuswide surveillance, there has to be a real conversation there about whether or not that is okay.”