Photograph by Prabin Ranabhat, SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
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A flight attendant on Buddha Air wears a protective suit and face shield during a safety drill aboard a plane in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Photograph by Prabin Ranabhat, SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Nano needles. Facial recognition. Air travel adapts to make travel safer

Planes and airports are deploying futuristic emerging technology in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My recent plane trip from Washington, D.C. to Eugene, Oregon, didn’t feel different from a circa-2019 flight. Apart from an airport gift shop T-shirt that read “I’m sorry for what I said when we were quarantined,” the experience was familiar—even with masked passengers and half-full planes. But experts say that our future flights could be very different.

A tech revolution in the aviation industry was already in motion before the pandemic. But the medical and material demands of COVID-19 have brought urgency and velocity to the race to make passenger air travel safer. On the ground and in the air, robot cleaners, new PPE uniforms for flight attendants, and mandatory medical screenings could become standard aspects of future air travel.

Here’s how technology might change your next flying experience.

Robots keep things cleaner

Disinfecting has taken on new importance during the pandemic, with ultraviolet C (UV-C) on the frontline. UV-C is a wavelength that damages a virus’s DNA and RNA, causing it to stop replicating and die. It’s bit of science that’s been understood since the mid-20th century and used in places like hospitals to sterilize rooms and tools. Now, the travel industry is looking to harness the light to fight the spread of coronavirus.

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Robots clean the floor with UV light at Pittsburgh International Airport. Such ultraviolet rays can kill viruses on surfaces.

Pittsburgh International Airport was already working with local startup Carnegie Robotics to test out autonomous cleaning robots that use water pressure and chemical disinfectant before the pandemic. After the virus hit, the company offered to install a UV-C component.

The four robots look like miniature Zambonis and are named for flying heroes—Amelia, Orville, Wilbur, and Rose, for Rose Collins, the first woman granted an aviator’s license in Pennsylvania in 1929. “The traveling public loves them,” says Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis. “The cleaning staff loves them because it lets them focus on other areas.”

The bots roam for eight to 10 hours a day before needing to recharge. The light, which is bright enough to damage eyes, is carefully encased to only hit the floor. The trial has gone so well that Cassotis says they are looking into more robots to clean the air train that moves between terminals and handrails.

Since UV light exposure carries cancer risks, any tools developed will have to keep both efficacy and safety in mind, according to Praveen Arany, a professor at the University of Buffalo and an expert on therapeutic uses of lasers and light.

Cleaning bots that use more traditional, Roomba-like techniques are on the job at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The Neo—a 1,000-pound, $50,000 floor-scrubber that looks like the love child of a rolling suitcase and an outboard motor—is made by Canada’s AvidBots and uses 3D technology and lasers to map its routes and divert around kiosks, food carts, or stray children.

Your face is your passport

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, airports were already investing in touchless technology to speed up the boarding experience. Now, those same non-contact tools might also prevent virus transmission.

“Existing technology will become more popular faster than expected,” says Andrew O’Connor, the vice president of portfolio management at Sita, an airport technology company. “You can use your face without having to touch things as much.”

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A United Airlines gate agent helps passengers from behind a protective plastic shield at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Instead of handing over your passport or ticket, you may get your face scanned with a biometric device. Most use sensors that let a person’s unique features—the curve of an ear, the shape of a forehead—prove their identity. While airlines like Delta, Air France, and JetBlue had started to roll out biometric boarding processes before the pandemic, O’Connor says that interest is up from other airlines and airports. And even though face-recognition tools were created before face masks became prevalent, he says the technology can still identify passengers with their mugs half-covered.

While these technologies promise to make travel safer, they could threaten information security if not protected against data breaches.

What is a Virus? Scientists at USAMRID, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious diseases, work with some of the most deadly forms of life on earth, killer viruses. Learn more.

It’s not just the boarding process that’s slipping into Tomorrowland: self-service kiosks, bag drop-offs, and gates are also getting a biometric boost to minimize interactions between staff and travelers and to reduce the number of times you’ll need to whip out your identification.

Health screenings become standard

Health screenings might become part of the touchless airport experience, too. Most people have seen images of passengers getting their temps taken with handheld thermometer wands at gates or security checkpoints. But increasingly, airports are opting for (or testing out) walk-through thermal-screening cameras, which operate by detecting heat emanating from a person’s body and then estimating its core temperature. The idea with both devices is to detect people with fevers who might be infected with COVID-19. Airlines have asked the U.S. government for temperature screenings at airports to keep passengers safer and make them more confident about flying.

But experts—including the World Health Organization—point out that these scanners will miss asymptomatic individuals who have COVID-19 and those infected who have not developed a fever.

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A security officer at the Istanbul Airport uses a thermal temperature scanner to scan passengers. While the devices can help identify people with fevers, they cannot detect COVID-19.

A new device called Symptom Sense could give airlines a better idea of a passenger’s health status than a temperature reading. The contraption looks and works like the metal-detector gate travelers walk through on the way to their flights. In five seconds (and without physical contact), it gathers a passenger’s temperature, blood-oxygen levels, heart rate, and respiration rates.

Derek Peterson, the CEO of Soter Technologies, the company behind Symptom Sense, says that the tech launched in June and he’s already in talks with the airports, airlines, and the TSA about adding the device to check passengers’ vitals as part of screening procedures.

“We’re basically emulating a doctor’s visit,” Peterson says. “You want to build a layered approach to find out if someone is well or not well.”

That might even mean passengers get disinfected upon arrival. Upon landing at the Hong Kong International Airport, future visitors may have to step into a negative pressure pod that looks like a cross between a sci-fi space capsule and a small elevator. The contraption, called the CLeanTech, performs a 40-second treatment with “nano needles,” photocatalyst technology, and a sanitizing spray, all meant to protect travelers and airport staff from potential viral infections. The device was being tested earlier this year; airport spokespeople say it may be in widespread use by 2021.

Mobile apps help travel go touchless

Passengers have used smartphones for more than a decade to check into flights, figure out if they’ll miss quick-turn connections, or switch seats. But mobile devices will become even more prominent in the flying-during-COVID-19 experience.

When face recognition is not available, mobile apps can interface with kiosks and gates to reduce touch. Mobile alerts could minimize crowding by pinging individual customers to board. This could help decrease crowds milling around the gate or in line on the jet bridge—a danger zone without much air circulation that puts people at risk of close, unventilated contact with others—a primary mode COVID-19 transmission.

“Whatever you can do to reduce the amount of people that are stuck there is a good idea,” says Paloma Beamer, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona.

At Miami International Airport and several other U.S. airports, motion-analytic software called Safe Distance is being installed to help passengers practice social distancing and to gather data about how people gather and move through lines. The system uses cameras to track movements and computers to crunch numbers; it’s currently just a tool for airport authorities to figure out if they need better social distancing signage or security procedures that space people out more. But it (or a similar system) could eventually be used on smart phone boarding apps or displayed on TSA dashboards.

The most significant smartphone-powered change might be a second check-in procedure. The major U.S.-based airlines are working on an industry-wide contact-tracing project, which would rely on a third-party app to collect data on passengers before they fly. Beamer, who is helping to develop a contact-tracing app for the University of Arizona, sees how this idea will be especially useful for the airline industry. “If these apps could be taken up more broadly, they could be helpful on things like flights,” she says. “There are lots of chances for chance encounters.”

Flight attendants get new uniforms

Airlines used to treat plane aisles as mini fashion runways, with smartly dressed flight attendants (think Pan Am’s stewardesses in mod blue suits circa 1971). But today’s and tomorrow’s cabin crews may be rocking PPE, or personal protective equipment. PPE is already required for attendants on some Qatar Airways, AirAsia, Thai Airways, and Philippine Airlines flights.

There’s a certain futuristic flair to some of the safety-first outfits: AirAsia’s new PPE uniforms look like flashy red HAZMAT jumpsuits; Philippine Airlines’ cabin crews now wear face shields and medical-chic white jumpsuits with a rainbow stripe on one shoulder.

Such functional fashion is fine, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist and professor at Touro College of Medicine, but flight attendants must use such garments as if they’re in a medical setting. “There has to be training on PPE,” he said. "How not to put it on, how not to fidget with it, and then how to take it off.”

The goal remains to protect both passenger and flight attendants, who are at heightened risk for COVID-19 exposure on the job. At least one flight attendant has died after contracting the virus during work training; others who have succumbed to the disease are suspected of having gotten sick on the job. Hundreds more have been hospitalized.

A full PPE getup might be overkill or “hygiene theater,” especially with some hospitals still struggling to keep protective gear in stock, according to Sonpal. Flight attendants and other essential workers need support from their workplaces and the people around them to follow health guidelines like wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. “There is still so much that isn’t known about this novel coronavirus,” he says. “We are flying by the seat of our pants.”

And what about the quality of the air circulating inside a plane’s cabin? It’s a theoretical risk since the mucus membranes in your nasal passages are likely to dry out in flight, making them more susceptible to a virus. But experts believe that HEPA filters in functioning ventilation systems neutralize the virus, rendering the air (which refreshes every three minutes) safe to breathe—ideally through a clean N95 mask.

“Technologies can indeed make us safer,” says Kacey Ernst, an epidemiologist and a professor at the University of Arizona. “But if our behaviors become riskier in response, it could cancel out the benefit of the technology.”

Jackie Snow is a technology and biology writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Instagram.