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The Exclusive Magazine for the Building Service Contracting Industry Since 1981

Robots: The Future of Cleaning?

Written by  Katharine Curcio

21ROBOTWhile robots have been a part of the American economy for decades, from primary sector industries such as mining and agriculture to secondary sector industries such as manufacturing, the service industry has yet to integrate robotics to a significant extent. That may be changing soon for the building service contracting insustry. Robots are now available to perform a number of cleaning functions, presenting a promising alternative to costly human labor for anything from floor cleaning to window cleaning.

Used as a supplement to human employees, cleaning robots eliminate the need for workers to perform many simple and repetitive tasks and allow them to focus more on complex, thoughtintensive tasks that robots cannot perform (at least, not yet). Robots introduce a new level of efficiency that human cleaners are simply incapable of attaining due to inherent limits of human productivity; a person can only mop so many square feet per hour. Robots may indeed be the future of cleaning, eliminating the need for a windowwasher to put himself in the precarious position of dangling high above street level, the need for service sheets on the inside of restroom doors, and the need for human cleaning staff to perform time-consuming tasks day after day.

Floor Cleaning Robots

As much as 95 percent of the cost of cleaning a floor is labor. Naturally, the high cost of this simple task has inspired alternative solutions. Robotic floor cleaners intended for residential use have grown in prominence over the past several years with the advent of the Roomba and other similar products. Although somewhat more sophisticated, robots intended for commercial floor cleaning and maintenance have also come on the market. In the United Kingdom, the Hefter Robot Cleaner is currently employed in the janitorial department of both Manchester Airport and The Queen Elizabeth II Hospital. The Hefter model can clean more than 200,000 square feet per day. It uses laser scanners and ultrasonic detectors to identify obstacles and maneuver around them. If it encounters a human obstacle, the shopping cartsized robot quips: “Excuse me, I am cleaning,” and steers around them. It learns its route after one guided tour by a human operator; after its first introduction to its surroundings, the robot can clean unsupervised, moving at a rate of three miles an hour and keeping a log of places it has already cleaned. After it completes its route, it guides itself back to its home station, where it recharges and refills on cleaning fluids.

The creators of the Figla cleaning robot decided to break out of the box of indoor cleaning, and created a robot capable of cleaning surfaces both indoors and out. Aided by infrared, gyroscopic, ultrasonic, and camera sensors, the Figla can navigate the outside world, identifying and accounting for uneven surfaces and detecting trash. The battery lasts for two hours, long enough to allow the Figla to clean over 21,500 square feet. It has an array of interchangeable parts, and after cleaning up trash and sweeping the sidewalk, you can swap out its parts and set it to work waxing hardwood floors.

One component of the successful use of cleaning robots in the future will involve the design community creating facilities in a way that accommodates robotic cleaning—a feat that should be more manageable than ever as integrated project development (IPD) brings a greater breadth of parties (from architects to facilities managers) to the table early in the design/construction process. At the Sumitomo Building in Osaka City, Japan, the building itself was modified to maximize the efficiency of the robot cleaner and to allow interfacing between the building and the robot. Optical transmission devices were installed in all the elevators, and a compatible device was included in the cleaning robot, allowing it to summon an elevator and choose a floor, and allowing the elevator to communicate with the robot, telling it when it has reached its destination. Like many other cleaning robots, it uses a laser sensor to detect and avoid obstacles. In addition to cleaning the floors, it can also pick up and dispose of garbage. Its slender body allows it to clean even in tight spaces and small corridors. A robot based on this design will soon become commercially available and is expected to cost between $35,000 and $46,000.

Duct Cleaning Robots

Duct cleaning can be expensive due to the labor-intensive nature of the job and a certain level of specialty it requires. In addition to improving indoor air quality, regular duct cleaning can also lower cooling and heating costs, making it an especially valuable service for clients seeking environmental certifications. Fortunately, many companies have now developed robots designed especially for the task of crawling through air ducts and eliminating dust and debris from them. Robots access the ducts from any pre-existing vents (whereas human cleaners are only able to enter the duct network from larger access points, sometimes having to cut access points in ducts if none exist). Once in the duct, the robots are remotecontrolled and require a human operator. They are equipped with cameras to allow their operators to steer them.

This technology emerged out of cleaners’ need to examine the conditions and severity of accumulated debris within the ducts before they entered it for cleaning and evolved with the development of attachments such as brushes and sprayers, eventually allowing the entire cleaning procedure to be completed robotically. One of the advantages of robotic duct cleaners is that they can be made quite small, allowing for more effective cleaning of small ducts than humans are often capable of.

Window Cleaning Robots

Serbot AG, of Switzerland, is one company that has developed a line of robots designed to clean the glass outer surfaces of skyscrapers. They have two models, the Gekko and the CleanAnt, both of which move freely, independent of support systems such as guiderails that were present in earlier versions of this technology. The Gekko is designed to handle only flat surfaces, but it does so very quickly, and can clean a surface fifteen times faster than a human performing the same task. It secures itself to the glass with two belts of suction cups that rotate, tank-like, on a guide rail around the Gekko as it moves. At the same time, it puts spider-like suction feet down ahead as it moves, detaching the feet in the back. The CleanAnt model can clean curved glass surfaces and uses a different structure: two “feet” that attach to the glass with vacuum power and “walk” along the surface to move. The leg-like structure lets the CleanAnt maintain its suction when the glass it is cleaning is not perfectly flat, and it also allows the CleanAnt to maneuver corners by reaching one “leg” around the corner while the other is still firmly anchored on the other side, something the flat-bodied Gekko cannot do. CleanAnt can also step over or around any obstacle it may encounter while scaling a building.

These models can use detergents for cleaning, but they also support more environmentally benign cleaning methods and function just as well using dry ice, demineralized water, or a special water-enzyme solution that eats away at the oily buildup that occurs on glass buildings. These cleaning robots can recycle the used cleaning substance, filtering it and thereby reducing waste. Human window-washers cannot safely perform their jobs if the wind speed is too high. Gekko and CleanAnt do not have this problem and can operate even in high-wind conditions or in other conditions that might be dangerous for a human counterpart. Humans are not necessary at all during the cleaning process, as the robots can work automatically, but they can also be controlled by radio if desired.

A similar technology from ROBOSOFT has been entrusted with the task of cleaning the Louvre’s famous glass pyramid. The cleaning portion of the robot is made up of two parts—a rotating brush and a drying blade. The robot is attached to an “energy trolley,” which is kept in a vehicle used to generate power for the robot, and provides it with air compression and water for cleaning. This robot, named robuGLASS, can be controlled manually with a joystick, or can be allowed to clean automatically. While cleaning, it can move almost 10 inches per second.

For more modest buildings requiring window cleaning nearer street level, there is the Windoro window cleaner. This robot is comprised of two parts, and in order to operate it, one half needs to be on the outside of the window, and the other half needs to be inside the window. Due to the way the Windoro needs to be set up, it is best for buildings with windows that open, or buildings whose windows are accessible from the outside. After setup, however, no assistance is needed, and the Windoro will automatically find the most efficient way to clean the window to which it is attached. Both halves have wheels, and magnets keep them working in tandem to clean the window, though Windoro cannot operate on glass thicker than 28mm. The robot uses a combination of detergent spray and spinning microfiber pads to clean the window. It operates very quietly and emits a beep when it has finished its task. Since it uses magnets to secure itself to the window, loss of power is not a safety issue. One charge of the battery can power the robot for a two-hour period, during which it can clean 130 square feet. At $400, this small robot is suited to modest budgets and those looking to give robotic cleaning a try without a large up-front investment.

Special-Purpose Cleaning Robots

Healthcare facilities, while they often appear spotless, can harbor bacteria even after a thorough cleaning—bacteria that are responsible for the more than two million secondary infections acquired each year in the U.S. Traditional cleaning methods can only kill so many bacteria, and over time pathogens have evolved a resistance to the chemical cleaners that have been used for decades. As a result, hospitals in the United States spend around $35 billion each year treating illnesses acquired at the hospital. Researchers at the Houston Technology Center created the Xenex to address this problem. The Xenex is a cleaning robot designed especially to kill bacteria in hospital rooms. The Xenex uses “pulsed xenon UV” light to disinfect rooms. It pulses with such high energy that very little exposure time is needed to completely disinfect a room, usually around 5 to 10 minutes. The robot is easily wheeled from room to room by a housekeeper without any additional assistance and is programmed to focus on high-contact areas and surfaces, such as faucets and tables, during its cleaning. One of the hospitals that has been using the Xenex reported a 67 percent drop in infections over the past year from a potentially deadly superbug, Clostridium difficile (C-diff).

Treating another common hospitalacquired infection, MRSA, costs the hospital about $28,000 per case, and testing with the Xenex has brought the incidence of MRSA down to zero in the intensive care units. A 120-bed hospital could be effectively serviced by two Xenex untis. Though they cost about $80,000, they can also be leased. One hospital owner estimates they have saved the hospital almost $3 million so far. For BSCs operating in a healthcare market, or those looking to do so, the Xenex offers a very promising return on investment.

Another special purpose robot is the Lady Bird, used in many rest stop bathrooms throughout Japan. With a whimsical shape designed to resemble a ladybug, the Lady Bird has its own water tank and brushes, as well as sensors to prevent collisions with bathroom installments and customers. It scrubs toilets and floors, and also interacts with the human users of the restroom, engaging in light conversation. If prompted, the Lady Bird can provide you with current weather and traffic reports. Robots like the Lady Bird are promising solutions for hightraffic areas that are used continuously and need frequent cleaning. They cost about $30,000 but are able to perform nearly all the tasks a human janitor would—meaning they could come close to paying for themselves within a year.

While the possibility of robotic cleaning devices may seem like a sort of Holy Grail for BSCs, they will still in many cases require human operators, as well as regular maintenance and servicing by humans. While they won’t eliminate the human element, their potential to reduce human involvement to higher-level functions means more effective use of human capital and greatly reduced costs in the long term, particularly as the cost of these units declines with wider adoption and scaling of production.


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