Robots developed to clean trains will protect staff against health risks and could help avoid delays, according to a scientist.

The device, which was developed in Scotland and resembles Dr Who's famous K9 robotic dog, is mounted on four small wheels with flip-out brushes and will complement humans by cleaning the hard-to-reach places between and under the seats in carriages.

It has a static camera in front and a stereo vision camera, mounted above, with a 180 degree field of vision.

The cleanliness of train carriages has been under increasing scrutiny since the pandemic to maintain public confidence in rail travel.

A 2020 survey of more than 50,000 UK rail passengers found a quarter were dissatisfied with the levels of cleanliness inside trains.

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said the robots would help make cleaning " quick and affordable" while protecting staff from risks.

Scientists say reaching underneath seats repeatedly over a long shift can lead to health problems while cleaning staff regularly encounter hazardous and biological waste which poses a significant risk.

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Cleaning can also prevent train delays with discarded newspapers identified as a reason why train doors can fail to close.

The robots were developed by scientists from the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University with support from University of Edinburgh and rail providers. 

The narrow under-seat area, which collects the most waste items, is extremely limited especially on older trains and this makes waste collection challenging for both humans and robots. Some spaces were measured at just 28cm tall, with entry points as small as 31cm.

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Dr Mustafa Suphi Erden from the National Robotarium, who is leading the project, said he believes it has the potential for "widespread adoption."

He said: “With the daily pressure on rail services, it’s essential that trains are cleaned as fast and as efficiently as possible. However, at present, this process is done entirely by hand requiring a significant amount of time for the cleaning personnel to collect each waste item one-by-one from under and in-between the seats. 

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“Reaching underneath seats repeatedly over a long shift can lead to health problems. Also, cleaning staff regularly encounter hazardous and biological waste which poses a significant risk. 

"We’ve worked closely with rail operators to design a robot that can complement existing cleaning regimes, aiding human cleaners to deliver an ongoing service and freeing them up to focus other hygiene tasks including disinfecting surfaces like tables, cleaning the seats and removing dirt, fluid and food waste.

"As well as being important for health, cleaning can also prevent train delays with discarded newspapers identified as a reason why train doors can fail to close."

Over the last two years, 58,300 images of waste in a variety of conditions were used to help the cleaning robot identify waste more accurately, along with several smaller datasets of actual waste photographed in situ on trains, taken from the perspective of a cleaning robot. 

Researchers worked with cleaning staff from Greater Anglia and West Midlands trains at London Liverpool Street station and Euston.

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The research team will now focus on the production of a flexible navigation tool to guide the robot, and a waste detection algorithm.

Dr Erden said: "Our chosen design had to be able to work in a very constrained environment as well as travel between coaches and over uneven surfaces. 

"We also need a robot that could collect and store newspapers and cups, the most frequent and problematic waste items on trains, with grasping technology able to manage the geometry of coffee cups and newspapers in a confined space. 

"It will benefit existing employees by supporting their roles and freeing them up to do less physically demanding and hazardous cleaning tasks while passengers will have reassurance that their carriage has been cleaned to a high standard. We hope this will reassure travellers and result in increased customer numbers for rail operators.

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Scientists say they are aiming to have a prototype design ready to demonstrate the technology by Summer 2022 and say it could be ready for market within six months. 

Luisa Moisio, Director of Research and Development at rail research body RSSB, which is funding the project, said: “Robotics is expected to be an important area of growth for the economy, and GB rail is taking the initiative, exploring how robots can be used to assist humans in dangerous, difficult, or dirty tasks.”    

he National Robotarium was set up with £21 million in funds from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government. 

Employment Minister Richard Lochhead said: “The COVID pandemic has shown how important good hygiene and cleanliness is in all our public spaces – and I’m sure that this new robot will improve working conditions for railway staff and the environment for passengers.  

“The demand for skills will change as our businesses adapt and we build on our growing reputation for hi-tech industries, which is why ensuring Scotland has a skilled and productive workforce, both now and in future, is central to our economic ambitions as we adapt to technological change."