May 20, 2020 12:00 PM, EDT

Honeywell Proposes Technology-Led Future for Flight Safety

Passengers queue according to social distancing measures at the Madrid Barajas airport in Spain on May 20.Passengers queue according to social distancing measures at the Madrid Barajas airport in Spain on May 20. (Paul Hanna/Bloomberg News)

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Honeywell International Inc. has been thinking about what it will take to coax people back onto airplanes. A virus-killing robot that can patrol empty aisles between flights, zapping out ultraviolet light, makes a good start.

The company has more in mind: temperature-taking cameras that can also flag airport officials when people aren’t wearing a face mask properly, a system that spots overcrowded areas, and air-quality sensors that constantly monitor for pathogens.

“We think these systems will be absolutely sufficient to get people back on planes,” said Mike Madsen, chief of Honeywell’s aerospace unit, which provides a wide range of aircraft parts and services to the industry. “It’s not enough to feel safe just on the airplane, they’ve got to feel safe and be safe all the way from door to door.”

Making people secure when flying again isn’t just important to airlines’ survival. Honeywell needs the industry back on its feet so that its own aerospace business can recover from a slump that’s expected to reduce revenue in its largest unit by 25% this quarter.

Honeywell is uniquely poised to meet the challenge. The company can tap into technology it has developed for other parts of its business, including warehouse automation, building security and gas detection equipment. It also makes protective gear. After boosting production of N95 masks to help supply medical workers during the pandemic, it can offer those masks to airlines, too.

Airport Walk-Through

Honeywell is talking with airports and about 100 airlines about implementing the safety equipment, Madsen said in an interview. A lot of the systems, such as the infrared cameras and air-quality sensors, are available now. Others, such as the beverage-cart-sized, UV-light robot, are a few months away.

Madsen has a vision of how all these systems can work together to make travelers safer. Here’s how he described what it could soon feel like to walk through an airport and board a plane in a world plagued by COVID-19:

Upon entering the airport, an infrared camera automatically takes your temperature and confirms that you are wearing a mask. The checks continue periodically as you head for your gate, and a system also alerts authorities if people are crowded too closely together.

Before you get on the plane, two robots ply the aisle, blanketing the interior with ultraviolet light with the power to kill pathogens like the coronavirus. Sensors tucked into nooks and crannies show if the machines miss a spot. As a double precaution, a disinfectant fogger flows from the air vents of the empty plane to sanitize the air, surfaces and the air-supply system itself.

A TSA agent works at a checkpoint inside O'Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago in January 2019.

A TSA agent works at a checkpoint inside O'Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago in January 2019. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Employees that tidy up enter the plane after the robotic deep cleaning, keeping them safe. The cleaning procedure takes only about 10 minutes, so your boarding time is still on schedule. Before getting on the plane, you’re handed a kit with a mask, wipes, hand sanitizer and non-latex gloves.

During the flight, the cabin air is monitored with hockey puck-sized, wireless sensors to ensure it’s safe. The monitoring also helps airlines pump in engine-warmed fresh air in just the right amount to avoid dragging needlessly on power and burning extra fuel.

After leaving the plane at your destination, you don’t notice that you’re again scanned for temperature and compliance for protective gear as you traverse the airport. You also may not see the wireless sensors distributed throughout the airport to check that air is circulating properly. The information you and other passengers provided to the airlines or airport security is added to a database that’s available in case contact tracing is required.

Many of these solutions didn’t exist three months ago before the virus began spreading throughout the world, Madsen said. As lockdown restrictions ease and businesses reopen, people will need to travel. How quickly airports and airplanes fill will depend on how comfortable travelers will feel in a full aircraft.

“Despite what’s happened over the last 90 days or so, we really believe that travel is a necessary part of both our business lives and our personal lives,” Madsen said. “Travel is not going to go away.”

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