Smart Germbusters: Industrial Cleaning Robots Fight COVID-19

Autonomous robotic vacuums step in to provide thorough cleaning as buildings open up. Artificial intelligence lightens the load for a strapped janitorial staff amid pandemic concerns.


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Image credit: SoftBank Robotics

Industrial cleanliness has taken on new importance as companies seek to reopen after prolonged, Coronavirus-induced shutdowns. Employers want to ensure healthy and safe working environments, while balancing social distancing guidelines, employing fewer workers, and watching the bottom line.

Commercial robotic vacuum cleaners are gaining traction as they take on routine cleaning operations, freeing janitorial staff to focus on more specific or complex tasks. The global cleaning robot market was $2.8 billion in 2019, and is projected to grow at an CAGR of nearly 13 percent through 2025.

The use of artificial intelligence is a key factor in driving this growth. Cleaning robots use sensors, AI, and machine learning to determine what areas to clean, identify the most efficient or shortest path, and avoid obstructions along the route. Integrated wireless capabilities allow owners to review cleaning operations.

Round, grey and white cleaning robot

SoftBank Robotics, the company behind the Pepper robot, is seeing an uptick in global interest for its autonomous cleaning robot, dubbed Whiz. Introduced in November 2018, 6,000 Whiz robots were sold by April of this year. By the end of June, sales had jumped to 10,000.

Whizzing Around

The Whiz robotic vacuum uses light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, where sensors emit pulses of light to discover obstacles and measure their distance from the vacuum. It’s powered by BrainOS, an artificial intelligence platform by Brain Corp., and has an integrated Intel® RealSense™ Depth Camera, which helps the Whiz navigate safely throughout the office space.

According to SoftBank, users clean with the Whiz only once, and the robot can recall the route for subsequent runs. It can store up to 600 routes and is engineered to avoid hazards such as glass walls, people, and other obstacles through RealSense.

With Whiz Connect, SoftBank’s telemetry software, owners can find out when and where cleaning occurred, how long the robot ran, and other performance metrics. Whiz collects the data as it operates and sends it to the cloud via integrated wireless communication functionality. From the cloud, owners can generate cleaning and status reports in near real time. Whiz can also send notifications to owners after each session.  

A Market on the Upswing

Robotic cleaners can vacuum up dirt and mop, but there is greater demand for robots with UV sterilization and hydrogen peroxide vaporizing mechanisms, which are more effective against the COVID-19 virus. Initially designed for use in hospitals, commercial use is growing as companies aim to mitigate disease transmission in office buildings.

New Era AI Robotic has expanded the capabilities of its Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR). The company added modules for UV-C disinfection and sprayer nozzles. The UV-C disinfection capabilities can zap germs in hospital or meeting rooms; the sprayer module can shoot COVID-killing disinfectant on floors, handrails, waiting areas, and other places to improve sanitation.

A Cost-Effective Clean Sweep

Initial investment in autonomous cleaning robots can be high, around $25,000, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for janitors and building cleaners is around $27,500 per year. On average, vacuuming accounts for 30 percent of total cleaning time. Eliminating vacuuming from the janitorial duties would enable employees to clean other areas more efficiently and cost effectively.

Fueled by the increasing adoption of IoT technologies and the need for frequent and thorough cleaning amid the pandemic, the use of autonomous robotic vacuums is likely to rise further.


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