Cleaning robots have their moment in the fight against COVID-19

Buck Ward helped build one of the world’s first commercial floor-cleaning robots, Robokent, in 1987. A tireless advocate for the potential of such automated cleaners, the entrepreneur has waited more than three decades for the technology to become mainstream.

Now Ward’s moment has finally arrived—courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s an emphasis on hygiene that I’ve never seen before,” says Ward, who today runs Cyberclean Systems, a Virginia company that helps businesses deploy cleaning robots.

Being able to prove that an office, factory, or store is as germ-free as possible is seen as imperative for giving employees and customers alike the confidence to return. To provide that assurance, companies are cleaning much more frequently—and that in turn is driving demand for robots.

Unlike human cleaners, the robots never miss a shift, get tired or ill, or cut corners. And, yes, they can help firms cut cleaning bills by reducing labor costs. But the robots can’t clean everything. In fact, for the moment they just clean floors, which aren’t a huge vector for the coronavirus. Using the robots, however, can free up human cleaning crews to concentrate on high-touch surfaces such as door handles, elevator buttons, and light switches that robots can’t yet tackle.

Robots have a long association with home cleaning in the public imagination—from Rosie, the robotic maid in The Jetsons, to the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which debuted in 2002. But it is only in the past decade that advances in microelectronics and machine-learning software have made such systems powerful, reliable, safe, and cheap enough to catch on in commercial settings. The machines have also become much easier to deploy, Ward says, with it taking less than a day to train most floor-cleaning robots today compared to weeks-long mapping sessions that were required when he first started working with cleaning robots in the late 1980s.

Sales of Neo, a floor-cleaning robot made by Canadian startup Avidbots, were already doubling on an annual basis before the coronavirus hit—but now sales have doubled again, according to Faizan Sheikh, the company’s CEO. “People who were not even thinking about it are now eager to buy,” he says.

Brain Corp., a San Diego company whose software powers several kinds of autonomous robots, says use of its self-driving cleaning robots increased 24% in April, compared with the same month last year.

Robots driven by Brain Corp.’s software clean the floors at supermarket chain Kroger and at Walmart and other big-box retailers. Some of those customers—including Walmart—have ordered more robots since the coronavirus pandemic began and have asked to deploy them as fast as possible, Eugene Izhikevich, Brain Corp.’s CEO, says.

He says that the reason companies are cleaning the floors—and want robotic cleaners—has been transformed by the pandemic. “Before it was about aesthetics,” he says. “Now it is about safety.”

Two-thirds of the increase in autonomous cleaning hours that Brain Corp. has recorded in the first three months of 2020 have come during the daytime—which is not typically when the robots had been used previously.

Before the pandemic, companies had deployed the robots at the same time that human cleaning crews typically worked—at night or in the early morning hours, when few people were around to get in the way of the large, Zamboni-like floor scrubbers, and when tile floors would have time to dry without risking slip-and-fall injuries.

But since the pandemic struck, cleaning during the day—when more people are around—has taken on new importance. It’s about both hygiene and public relations, says Brian Cobb, the chief innovation officer at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which has been using Avidbots’ Neo since December. It initially used the Neo at night but has since shifted to nearly round-the-clock use of the robot. “The more it is out there, the better optics with the consumer,” he says. The robots’ presence is a visual indicator that the airport is “going above and beyond.”

Cobb says that the use of such cleaning robots is likely to increase too. While the need for cleaning has become greater, the airport’s ability to add more human cleaning staff is likely to be constrained by budget considerations: The airport is facing a huge loss of revenue from the pandemic.

The sudden popularity of cleaning robots hasn’t escaped notice from investors. Brain Corp., which had early backing from SoftBank’s Vision Fund and Qualcomm, secured an additional $36 million Series D investment round in late April to help it accelerate its growth. That round included ClearBridge Investments, a venture capital firm that specializes in helping tech firms as they prepare for an initial public offering, something that Izhikevich says may be on the cards for Brain Corp. in the next year.

Cleaning robots, depending on the make and model, cost $40,000 to $60,000 each and often require additional ongoing spending for maintenance and an autonomous-software subscription. Brain Corp., for instance, has several different pricing tiers, Izhikevich says, with $500 per robot per month being about average. But in terms of saving on human labor, if the robots are used 20 hours per week, they earn back their cost in 18 months, Avidbots’ Sheikh says. Now, with the increased cleaning due to the coronavirus outbreak, that break-even point has reduced to 15 months or less, he says.

The coronavirus pandemic has also sped advances in the way robots clean. Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based robotics company that makes the autonomous systems for the Nilfisk Liberty SC50 Autonomous Scrubber, a popular robotic floor cleaner, is now testing an attachment that uses ultraviolet light to kill germs, including the coronavirus, as well as scrubbing the floor.

The attachment and sensors that guide the UV light came out of a system Carnegie Robotics originally developed for a U.S. military robot that could locate and neutralize buried improvised explosive devices and mines, says Daniel Beaven, the company’s chief financial officer.

The first of these UV-light-equipped self-driving floor scrubbers is now being used at Pittsburgh International Airport. Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny Airport Authority, which runs the Pittsburgh airport, says she’s always looking for ways to showcase at the airport the innovation taking place in Pittsburgh. The robotic floor cleaner, built by a local tech firm, seemed like a good way to do that. But when the coronavirus struck, the robot also became a way to highlight something else—that the airport was safe for staff and customers, she says.

Beaven says Carnegie Robotics, whose core team are veterans of Uber’s self-driving car efforts, has been considering ways they may be able to create robots that, by using articulated arms, would be able to use ultraviolet light to disinfect other surfaces besides just floors. But, he cautioned, such systems will take time to be developed and secure regulatory approval. Ultraviolet rays at the strengths needed to kill many types of germs can also cause permanent eye injury and increase cancer risk if humans are not properly shielded from the light.

Ward says he doesn’t think the clamor for cleaning robots, unlike, say, the spike in the demand for toilet paper, will fade once the coronavirus outbreak ends. “It is here to stay, and it is going to accelerate the sale and adoption of robots,” he says.

There is a sense in which robotic floor cleaners act as a “gateway drug” for other kinds of robotic automation: Once people get comfortable with the self-driving tile scrubbers, they start looking for other tasks that can be automated. “For a first-time entrance into the autonomous space, it really provides that level of experience and comfort,” Cobb, the innovation officer at the Cincinnati airport, says. Now, he says, the airport is considering whether other kinds of robots can assist with baggage handling and whether it can use self-driving vehicles to move passengers, especially those who have difficulty walking, around the airport.

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