Turning Cleaning Robots Into Engaging Personalities

Meet the team that keeps PIT clean: Orville, Wilbur, Rosa, Amelia

By Bob Kerlik

Published October 26, 2020

Read Time: 3 mins


Waiting in baggage claim on Monday, Amy Martin looked up from her phone and saw that she was standing in the way of Amelia, who happened to be working her shift scrubbing and disinfecting the floor.

Amelia, gazing ahead, stopped and patiently waited while Martin stepped aside.

“I was texting on my phone and didn’t see it coming, and I must have been in the way so it stopped. I looked and I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’” laughed Martin, of Clarion, Pa. “So I turned around and I said, ‘I have to get a photo of this and send it to someone.’”

Amelia is one of Pittsburgh International Airport’s four autonomous robots that made headlines earlier this year for being the first in the country to deploy ultraviolet disinfection measures during the pandemic. PIT teamed up with Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Robotics to deploy the robots — essentially self-driving scrubbers that clean floors in an ultra-efficient manner.

Who are they?

Applying UV technology is part of the airport’s strategic approach to intensified cleaning. Applying eyes, names and accessories to the robots is, well, fun.

But these just aren’t any names. Each robot is named for a noteworthy aviation pioneer, with his or her biography prominently displayed on the side.

Carnegie Robotics designed and manufactured the artificial intelligence and robotic systems, enabling the scrubbers to map an area and then clean it without human help. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Amelia is, of course, named for Amelia Earhart, the famed pilot and female aviation trailblazer. Orville and Wilbur are named after the Wright brothers, considered the fathers of aviation. The fourth, Rosa, is named for Rosa Mae Willis Alford, the sole female mechanic to work on the planes of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who spent much of her life in nearby Beaver County.

Adding the eyes and names to the machines boosts passenger engagement, said Paul O’Rourke, the airport’s vice president of marketing.

“Yes, Pittsburgh means robotics, AI and machine learning,” O’Rourke said. “But the heart of Pittsburgh is its friendly nature. By softening the ‘machine’ — and giving people a bit of an aviation history lesson as well — you see a lot more interest, acceptance and even joy from passengers than you do raised eyebrows. And right now, we could all use a little more joy.”

It’s all in the eyes

There’s also science behind the boosted engagement.

Amrisha Vaish, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, told Engadget that research shows that putting eyes on objects encourages people to be more social.

“People pay attention to the presence of eyes,” Vaish said. “Humans are very sensitive to the presence of other people, and we behave more socially in the presence of other people.”

It’s called the “watching-eye paradigm,” which relies on a human trait of needing to be valued within society.

“In the course of our evolution, it’s been really important for us to cooperate with others,” Vaish said.

Research shows that putting eyes on objects encourages people to be more social. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

That’s exactly what Rege Koslof, site manager for ISS, the cleaning contractor that helps operate the scrubbers, noticed with PIT’s robots once the eyes and names were added, prompting more photos and interest.

“People really like the decals and the personalities created by the faces,” Koslof said. “One woman asked me if we could change the light on the front from blue to white. It’s the activation light and it happens to be right where their ‘mouths’ are. So, this person wanted the light to be white so it would be a nicer smile.”

Amy Martin took her own photo as she waited in baggage claim and sent it to her mother and husband.

“I thought it was very funny,” she said. “I’m picking up my (2-year-old) granddaughter and she should be coming down soon. So if that’s there, it would be funny for her to see.”

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