Scientists from the National Robotarium, delivered by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, have unveiled the design of a new train cleaning robot to help existing cleaners.

The robot, which is being funded by rail research body RSSB, has been designed to increase cleanliness standards on trains nationwide. It will complement humans by cleaning in the hard-to-reach places between and under the seats.

The National Robotarium has spent the last two years working on the most appropriate design and operating system for the robot. The robotics and AI research facility is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative and is supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal – a 15 year investment programme jointly funded by both governments and regional partners.

In the UK, 182 million rail passenger journeys were made in 2021-22 Q1 on national rail services despite ongoing restrictions. However, research into passenger attitudes has consistently shown that travellers want a higher standard of cleanliness on their railways. In a 2020 survey of over 50,000 UK rail passengers, a quarter said they were dissatisfied with the levels of cleanliness inside trains.

Dr Mustafa Suphi Erden from the National Robotarium is leading the project. He explains: “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.

“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 on other hygiene tasks including disinfecting surfaces like tables, cleaning the seats and removing dirt, fluid and food waste.”

The National Robotarium team has used more than 58,300 studio images of waste in a variety of conditions to help the cleaning robot to identify waste more accurately, along with several smaller datasets of actual waste photographed on trains.

In interviews with rail service providers, the team obtained further information regarding operating conditions to guide the design of the robot. The narrow under-seat area, which collects the most waste items, is extremely limited and this makes waste collection challenging. Some spaces were measured at just 28cm tall, with entry points as small as 31cm.

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said: “The pandemic has shown the importance of regular, thorough cleaning on board public transport. I am excited that these new robots could help make cleaning both quick and affordable, and so improve the wellbeing of travellers and staff. The UK Government is investing £21 million in the National Robotarium to support its cutting-edge research into innovative solutions like this.”

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. I’m pleased the Scottish Government is providing £1.4 million to support the Robotarium as we move towards a sustainable and innovative economic recovery.”

Luisa Moisio, Director of Research and Development, RSSB said: “We’re delighted to be supporting this important research that is contributing towards a step change in working conditions for railway staff, and which will also give passengers added reassurance about the cleanliness of carriages. 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.”

The research was supported by funding from RSSB with input from the Greater Anglia train presentation staff at London Liverpool Street station and the West Midlands train presentation staff at Euston station.