Floor cleaning robots – clearing the path to ‘mainstream’ automation?

Are floor cleaning robots the vanguard that will herald more 'public' use for robotics outside of heavy industry?
28 July 2021

A UV cleaning robot cleans the floor at Pittsburgh International Airport. (Photo by JEFF SWENSEN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Physical robots have been in use for decades but, most often confined to car manufacturing lines and other heavy industries, the average person typically doesn’t see them in action. If we do run into this technology, the applications we see are more likely to be for ‘wow factor’ rather than genuine utility, such as Japan’s world-first robot hotel

But in times where human contact must be kept to a minimum, the concept of robotics – and its benefits in being programmable to do what humans do, without humans being there – is drawing renewed interest

Last year the chief executive of UVD Robotics, Per Juul Nielsen, said the coronavirus “kind of rocketed” demand for its microbe-killing, floor cleaning robots that are able to patrol rooms and corridors performing deep cleans of surfaces with concentrated UV light. The robot is a self-driving, voice-enabled machine that disinfects microbes with concentrated, high-intensity ultraviolet light, which is dangerous for humans to be exposed to. 

While the makers of these floor cleaning robots targeted hospitals and other healthcare settings where risk of spreading the virus is much higher and protective equipment is often required by workers, these types of robots are now set to enjoy greater uptake as commercial settings look to maintain cleanliness and, perhaps more significantly, instill trust and confidence back into physical outlets once again. 

In Singapore, which is proving itself to be ‘robot-friendly’, mall operator Frasers Property is deploying similar UV-disinfecting robots to the floors of its properties in overnight tests to ensure shopper and staff safety as outlets open again. Singapore’s Northpoint City may see PBA Group’s Sunburst UV robots first, before they are rolled out to 13 other locations across the city.

Are floor cleaning robots the vanguard that will herald more 'public' uses of robotics outside of heavy industry?

Pittsburgh International Airport has put UVC fixtures on its floor-cleaning robots, making it the first airport in the US to test the use of the ultraviolet rays to scrub the coronavirus from surfaces. (Photo by JEFF SWENSEN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to unfold, it is critical for us to ensure the ongoing health and safety of our staff, tenants and shoppers,” said Low Chee Wah, CEO of Frasers Property Retail. “The deployment of the AMRs [Autonomous Mobile Robots] at our malls will enable us to step up our efforts to protect the communities we operate in and relieve the manpower resources on labor-intensive cleaning tasks.”

Derrick Yap, head of PBA Group, said the robots could take on a role that was “dangerous, dull and dirty” – which neatly sums up the considerations of most commercial applications of robots today. “It’s dangerous because UVC shouldn’t be deployed when there’s humans around,” he said, referring to the type of germicidal radiation used. However the robot is programmed to turn off its UV lights if it detects a human in close proximity. 

“Dull — because you keep on going to a place and you keep on doing a repeated task, and dirty, because of the Covid-19,” he said. Once its route has been fully mapped, the robot – which resembles a cluster of fluorescent lights on a moving base – is expected to perform its cleaning cycle autonomously and recharge itself afterwards.

Cleaning floors is just one application of robotic and autonomous vehicle technology that has been deployed to mitigate the spread of the virus. Isralie startup Robotemi retrofitted its Temi robot assistant with a thermometer and thermal camera, which it deployed to hundreds of hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes and corporate buildings in Asia. It even had a sink where individuals could wash their hands. 

Robotemi CEO Gal Goren, said, “In China, there are regulations currently in place where an employee arriving at the office must get his body temperature before continuing his day. Temi is standing at the front door waiting for him.”

Chinese delivery app Meituan Dianping was behind the ‘contactless delivery’ initiative launched during the pandemic in Beijing. Its self-driving delivery vehicle was capable of carrying up to 100 kilograms of goods and delivering three to five orders per trip to individuals in lockdown.