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Why Germ-Zapping Robots and AI Technology Could Be the Future For Cruise Ships

U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter

Last updated
Feb 9, 2021

The use of advanced technology is likely to play a key role in keeping people healthy on cruise ships, according to travel and technology industry experts.

Cruise lines have arguably been well ahead of the game when it comes to new technology in the travel industry -- even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March and led to a global suspension of operations.

As Luis de Carvalho, CEO of Bermello Ajamil and Partners Europe, a global leading consulting practice specializing in port and destination development for the cruise and maritime Industry, said:

"Even prior to COVID-19 we were experiencing a gradual evolution of procedures and tools associated with the cruise experience. What COVID-19 has done is to add a more 'urgent' element that will force the industry to speed up that process of adding to the passenger experience and enhancing health protocols."

Of course, there's a trade-off: A huge part of the cruise experience is meeting people, having a drink together and chatting up new friends at dinner. Is that realistic with social distancing and mask wearing?

As de Carvalho puts it: "[Cruise] is a people product, and we enjoy socialization, thus elements such as social distancing will need to be carefully managed in the startup and eliminated long-term to preserve the aesthetics of the product."

So while some of the restrictions needed to restart cruising will be gradually eliminated, tech is definitely here to stay. We take a look at how it will reshape the cruise experience.

The Technology is Here Already.

During a roundtable chat in May, Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. chairman and CEO, said: "Frankly, the technology has helped make [health protocols] easier, and I think the same thing is going to happen on the cruise ships. We're going to use technology. We're fortunate with … our touchless system, that will allow us to do things without any contact on signing bills or anything like that."

Most of the major lines have been running with enhanced technology for a couple of years. Examples include Royal Caribbean's fast track check in -- take a selfie and scan your own passport; Celebrity's facial recognition technology; MSC Cruises' artificial intelligence system, Zoe, an Alexa-like onboard assistant; and Princess' Ocean Medallion, a part-app, part token approach to customized cruising.

Some of this technology might have seen gimmicky when it was launched, as technology expert Fran Marcellin says: "Princess Cruises' Ocean Medallion, for example, unlocks the door as you approach so guests don't need to touch their door handle. It was simply a luxurious feature pre-COVID-19; now, in our new world it, holds far more practical importance."

Of course, much of this tech is commonplace at airports -- facial recognition at e-passport gates, mobile boarding passes, self check-in -- and widely accepted by air passengers, who often do not interact with a human until security.

It Starts Before You Get to the Terminal.

Most major cruise lines now offer online check-in, which originally was just a way of removing paperwork and lines but now means you get your boarding pass on your phone.

With facial recognition and passport scanning, passengers can simply wave their phones at a scanner in the embarkation port -- just like at an airport -- and they are through, avoiding any human interaction (if the tech is working).

Another possible change passengers might see are disinfection tunnels leading to the terminal and an entirely biometric system operating in the terminal, according to Jennifer Willy, editor at the European Travel Information and Authorization Systems, which oversees Europe's electronic visa waiver program: "In the long run, many hotels and airports will opt for disinfection tunnels and thermal scanners for passengers to pass through.

"Touchless communication is another big change that will and is taking place at some airports. Delta terminal in Atlanta is operating through an all-biometric check-in system. Right now, this can be seen in Delta only, but it is likely to spread in other airports around the world."

Apple and Google both are developing track and trace apps, which can alert crew whether someone has been near an infected person. As in China, it might be that you have to show you are all clear, rather than the lines basing it on trust when you sign the health questionnaire.

You'll See Changes At The Terminal.

And if the thermal imaging cameras aren't placed outside, then you probably will find them in the terminal, as Portsmouth International Port, in the U.K., has done.

Portsmouth was the first British port to introduce thermal imaging cameras to test passengers' temperature; the aim of the technology is to give a ship's medical team the information to decide whether a passenger should be allowed to board.

And Carnival Corp. recently announced it is partnering with a company called Infrared Cameras Inc. to screen passengers and crew using thermal cameras.

Greg Ross-Munro, CEO of Sourcetoad, a software development company that works with the hospitality industry, said: "Most likely to be rolled out first across most cruise lines and port terminals is temperature scanning, for example, thermal imaging using infrared to detect elevated skin temperatures, not only at embarkation, but for monitoring throughout the cruise."

However, terminals of the future may go well beyond simply installing thermal imaging, which de Carvalho describes as "more of a public relations item than a health-screening tool due to the large percentage of asymptomatic people."

"[There] are systems for air purification and pathogen removal for the whole terminal facility that could be implemented, along with UV lighting, and the obvious thermal imagining for temperature checks," he said.

The biometric testing is likely to follow, but not immediately, according to Ross-Munro: "Facial recognition will not likely be utilized across all cruise lines yet, nor at all port terminals, but it will be deployed in busy ports for better crowd control."

We might even see terminals rolling out iris recognition, as well as gesture and voice control, all of which are new technologies being trialed at airports.

Expect Significant Onboard Changes.

A number of lines have detailed what changes we are likely to see onboard in terms of capacity reductions, the use of masks, social distancing and other enhanced health protocols.

One of the main ways to ensure these health protocols are adhered to will be via touchless tech. This is already used widely by the lines in the form of apps, which allow you to do a whole variety of things -- often without the need to log onto onboard Wi-Fi.

Some are more functional than others, but they might: act as a keycard to open your cabin, to order and pay for drinks; make bookings at restaurants, shows and the spa; book shore excursions, check your account, track your loved ones or even control the lights and temperature in your cabin.

As Fran Marcellin says: "As the virus can remain present on surfaces, cruise lines with smartphone apps that include planners and daily information -- such as Carnival's HUB, Royal Caribbean's Royal app, Viking's Viking Voyager and MSC Cruises' MSC for Me -- reduce the need for passengers to touch documentation.

"Those with reservation and cancellation capabilities also mean passengers can avoid contact with others at physical booking zones on board."

She adds: "Smart home technology also helps passengers avoid touching in-room surfaces, like being able to control lighting and temperature through the app on Celebrity Edge."

Travel technology writer Mark Frary said: "Another potential victim of the crisis may be the shared touchscreens that cruise lines frequently use to sell tours, book activities and let passengers browse photos. Few will willingly swipe a screen for half an hour that countless other guests have been using.

"I predict that cruise lines will invest more in making these services more easily accessible on our own devices. Yes, they have the apps but they will need to become more user-friendly and feature-rich."

And we may also have to wave goodbye to paper invitations from the Captain inviting you for dinner, according to Ross-Munro:

"Paperless receipts are provided on many cruise lines, but the move to paperless daily newsletters, activities announcements, and menus has been slower until now. Touchless tech for food and beverage menus has been used by some cruise lines in the higher-end venues, but paperless menus will become ubiquitous (if not mandatory)."

Tech that decentralize passengers is also being increasingly used for reducing contact. Marty Sprinzen, CEO of VANTIQ, a software development company that works with airports on thermal imaging cameras, said: "For instance, a ship could use virtual queueing apps to limit how many people are able to go to a certain area at any given time, which would make certain there is no crowding at a lunch buffet, in the fitness center or at the pool.

"Indeed, prior to the pandemic, VANTIQ was working with a German tech company creating apps for the cruise industry, such as passenger management and tracking apps that can help passengers navigate the ship."

MSC Cruises' geo-location wristbands mean you can find your friends or family wherever they are on the ship (using your app), rather than meeting them at a central point somewhere.

And by using Ocean Now on some of Princess Cruises' ships, passengers can order food, drink and a selection of other products and receive them in a different location, away from other passengers or shopping areas.

Going back to the accusations of tech gimmickry, one of the most high-profile victims of that was the Bionic Bar, which debuted on Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas in 2014, as Frary said:

"Royal Caribbean's Bionic Bar cocktail maker was surely little more than a publicity stunt when it was conceived but it now seems a prophetic move by the cruise line. People will be understandably worried about food and drink preparation -- and shared buffets in particular - when they return to cruising. We may see an increase in automation as a result."

Which might well go beyond bars.

Is This The End of the Personal Touch?

One of the aspects that we might lose, at least in the short term, is the personal touch -- whether that's being handed your drink at the bar, enjoying a deep-tissue massage at the spa or even close contact with your room steward.

As one Boards members asks, could cruise lines introduce some of the changes that are already being pioneered at hotels such as limited housekeeping, no room service and surfaces devoid of many items to help with cleaning?

One glimpse into the future comes from Xenex, whose LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robots (they've been likened to R2D2) are already being used in hotels, restaurants, food processing facilities, and office buildings -- and it has built protocols for cruise ships. The robots use broad spectrum UV light to quickly decontaminate rooms and public spaces.

A spokesperson for Xenex told Cruise Critic: "Pre-pandemic, norovirus was a concern, and we've been contacted by various companies about stopping the spread of infectious disease on their ships.

"There are lots of companies marketing UV devices right now -- what makes our robot different is the way we create intense bursts of UV light, so the robots work very quickly."

According to Xenex, Texas Biomedical Research Institute tested the robot against the virus that causes COVID-19 and it killed it in two minutes.

And if you're still worried about touching surfaces in your cabin, just ask Zoe to look up information or power items on or off for you – MSC Cruises' voice activated Alexa-like speaker is in every cabin onboard MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa, and is likely to be retrofitted onto other ships in the fleet.

It was initially designed to answer simple questions like what times does the show start or what time does the main dining room open, but as "she" learns, Zoe will be able to increase her knowledge and functionality, such as turning on and off the lights and the TV.

"Voice tech will become important in the new touchless world too. Rather than having to turn off the lights or lower the blinds by hand, just ask 'Alexa' to do it for you," Frary said.

"It will be an expensive time for cruise lines when they can least afford it. Lifelong cruise lovers will return after the pandemic ends but convincing new people to give a cruise a try may rely on ships becoming as touchless as possible."

Ross-Munro is not convinced the personal touch will be eliminated entirely: "Does it mean using voice, sensor, or mobile app technology will replace speaking directly to a steward, waiter, bartender, and all guest services? I think onboard technology will augment the ways guests can communicate and interact with the crew, rather than replace them."

He believes the two areas where AI is most likely going to be used are in chatbots and virtual assistants like MSC's Zoe, but adds: "Once again, completely replacing a human being is unlikely, and handing off conversations will be an important step."

The danger with all this automation -- as Royal Caribbean found out to its cost in 2014 when it first introduced tablets for waiters to take orders, and were hit with a deluge of complaints because it meant waiters were buried in their screens -- is the loss of what makes people want to cruise again and again, as de Carvalho explains:

" Cruising is all about the personal attention and relationships built with crew and other guests.

"Personal contact with the ship board staff is and always has been a very important component of creating memorable experiences. The cruise product cannot eliminate that essence of the cruising experience.

He added: "Otherwise it will be just transportation from one place to another."

Publish date February 09, 2021
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