Covid-crushing technology for the office?

In the Covid-19 era, employers are looking at a range of innovations aimed at making workplaces safe. These range from materials that can puncture and kill viruses, to germicidal ultraviolet irradiation, to viral furnaces. But as the FT’s Anna Gross explains, a more low-tech solution could simply involve improving ventilation in buildings, and not all the innovations will prove effective in the real world.

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The rise of Covid-safe technologies in the workplace, and beyond.

As economies emerge from hibernation, engineers are developing some radical technologies to keep the coronavirus out of offices. 

UK company NitroPep is developing layers of material with tiny spikelike particles that puncture and kill viruses within minutes.

NitroPep’s spikes are tiny antimicrobial agents that can be added to desks, walls and other surfaces and rupture anything with a membrane that lands on them. 

“It doesn’t require a change in behaviour, it just sits there and kills whatever lands on it,” said company founder Felicity de Cogan. The spikes cannot be felt by anyone running their hand across the surface. 

The technology is untested for coronavirus, but when it was piloted for a year on a Royal Navy ship it removed more than 95 per cent of bacteria such as E.coli and MRSA.  

If deemed to be effective for the novel coronavirus, Ms de Cogan says she will look to apply the microscopic spikes to handles and seating on public transport and use them for self-cleaning protective equipment. 

Some experts have reservations. “We’re not going to be able to cover every product and material we touch with self-cleaning surfaces,” said Joseph Gardner Allen, assistant professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. 

Outside the office, the coronavirus pandemic is driving a boom in “air button” technologies that allow users to operate devices without physically touching them, as concerns persist over the spread of the virus through contact with surfaces. 

Jaguar Land Rover has announced that it was trialling a contactless movement-tracking system — dubbed “predictive touch” — for its dashboard control panel. Developed with the University of Cambridge, it tracks users’ hand motions and combines this with other information such as eye movements to interpret which option they wish to select. 

“Predictive touch technology eliminates the need to touch an interactive display and could therefore reduce the risk of spreading bacteria or viruses on surfaces,” said Lee Skrypchuk, a human-machine interface technical specialist at Jaguar Land Rover. 

Other companies are going a step further by deploying so-called “mid-air haptics”, which involve using concentrated ultrasound radiation to mimic a sense of touch. “It works by modulating ultrasound speakers in such a way that you can make them perceivable on the non-hairy part of your skin,” said Marianna Obrist, professor of multisensory interfaces at University College London. 

Bristol-based company UltraLeap has recently signed a deal with CEN media group, which runs advertising displays and digital posters in cinema lobbies across the US. The company’s hand-tracking and ultrasonic technology will be installed on top of existing systems to allow customers to interact with media on the screens, beginning with a rollout across 10 cities. 

UltraLeap is also exploring how the technology could be developed for settings such as elevator buttons, ATMs and map kiosks in malls.  

Coronavirus has also brought a new lease of life to a decades-old technology known as “germicidal ultraviolet” — beams of UV light that kill micro-organisms by mangling RNA in viruses and DNA in bacteria and fungi. 

It already has a track record: during a series of drug-resistant tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1980s researchers found that placing UV lamps on the ceiling of large rooms effectively stopped transmission of the disease.

Coronavirus has even turbocharged demand for UV disinfecting robots. Danish company UVD Robots was the first company to invent these machines, which travel around buildings emitting UV light that leaves bacteria and viruses too damaged to function. The robots, which sell for roughly €60,000, can already be found at hospitals, hotels, offices and airports around the world, including London’s Heathrow.

The pandemic is driving a shift in companies’ use of technology, both official statistics and business surveys suggest, making the automation and digitalisation industry one of the few winners from this year’s economic turbulence. 

Robotics and automation-related international trade and output volumes have increased in many countries, bucking the overall downward trend in global trade. 

In the eurozone, production of special-purpose machinery and lifting and handling equipment, which includes industrial robots, has outperformed many sectors, particularly car production. 

The pandemic is “a real boost for digital factory technologies”, said Patrick Schwarzkopf, member of the board of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). 

Some smart factories have continued to operate with workers monitoring and carrying out maintenance from home, he said, while the installation and operation of new tools and machinery has shifted to augmented reality, mixed reality and remote digital services as people were unable to travel

IFR expects the number of professional services robots in operation around the world to rise by 38 per cent this year and that growth to continue in the next two years. 

Meanwhile, some researchers in Switzerland are trying to develop sensors that detect the virus itself. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) have developed a sensor set inside a chamber that emits a light signal if it comes into contact with the virus’s RNA

While high tech solutions may show promise, some engineers argue that the cost of implementation and speed of delivery mean that the focus now should be on simpler upgrades to existing systems. Chief among them are heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems 

They can play a key role in preventing the accumulation of tiny airborne microdroplets known as “aerosols”, but in many cases there is room for improvement. The minimum ventilation flow rate is typically 5-10 litres of fresh air per person per second, but some buildings can have just 1 litre per person per second.  

Many ventilation systems also circulate air from one indoor space to another, increasing the risk of airborne infection. Instead, each room needs to be pumped full of 100 per cent outdoor air wherever possible, engineers say. 

There are options out there, but many will not come cheap, and not all of them will prove effective in the real world.

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