Robotic floor cleaning on the horizon

Originally designed for consumer use but quickly adopted for military and government applications, floor cleaning robots are evolving steadily and increasingly appealing to managers in a range of commercial establishments. But, their readiness for industrial environments depends on the application.

By Sheila Kennedy

Floor cleaning is cheaper, easier and safer because of the advances that robotic technology provides. Originally designed for consumer use but quickly adopted for military and government applications, floor cleaning robots are evolving steadily and increasingly appealing to managers in a range of commercial establishments. But, their readiness for industrial environments depends on the application.

"Because as much as 95% of the cost to clean a floor involves labor expense,” says Wade Reitmeier, product manager at Advance, “the concept of automated cleaning has an obvious appeal to the marketplace and to equipment manufacturers. However, bridging the gap in technology cost, safety and application flexibility has proven to be difficult.”

Currently, several brands of robotic floor cleaners of varying quality are on the market. Although they might not be suited for the heavy-duty cleaning of large factory floors, the technology could have a place in industrial offices, storerooms, meeting rooms, restricted areas, lobbies and corridors.

Business drivers: According to Duncan Ashworth, president of FloorBotics, “As the minimum wage rises, robots make more economic sense. The increasing costs of workers’ compensation, insurance, salaries and office space add up to significant janitorial maintenance overhead.” To minimize these costs, companies can either outsource cleaning services or automate the cleaning process.

Outsourcing raises its own issues. Safety concerns, theft and the inability to respond to sudden spills or unscheduled cleanups are just a few considerations.

On the other hand, robotic floor cleaners automate the tedious and sometimes hazardous tasks so that your own maintenance personnel can be more profitably deployed elsewhere. The costs of electronic components and batteries are continually decreasing, making robotic technologies more affordable. Machines that were once characterized by haphazard cleaning patterns and inadequate battery charges are gradually being replaced by a more effective grade of technology.

Current models: One of the first consumer brands, iRobot’s Roomba Robotic Floorvac, is now available in 25 countries and has sold 1.2 million units since its introduction in 2002. Robotic floor cleaners like the Roomba move around furniture and other obstacles, avoid stairs and overhangs, and navigate the length and width of the floor in a systematic fashion.

Individual features vary. For example, the Roomba senses particularly dirty areas and automatically increases its cleaning intensity. Some units clean in 60-minute increments and then find their way back to a charger station where the battery is recharged automatically for another hour of cleaning. If noise is a concern, some brands can be switched to quiet mode or paused to stop cleaning temporarily.

Certain robots can be preprogrammed to operate on specified days and times. Many are designed to operate on a variety of floor surfaces. Some incorporate laser beacons or avoid magnetic strips that cordon off sections of the floor for cleaning while allowing normal operations to continue in the remainder of the room.

The IVAC by FloorBotics, with its larger battery capacity and greater amount of storage for debris, is a unit designed for industry. “Theoretically,” says Ashworth, “the IVAC can clean a 600 foot by 600 foot area. Its coverage is limited only by the size of the memory in the robot.”

On the horizon: iRobot is getting ready to launch the Scooba Robotic Floor Washer, which is designed to vacuum, scrub and dry your hard sealed floor surfaces automatically—cleaning wet spills in addition to dirt and grime. FloorBotics has a concept on the drawing board to address interest from companies needing to clear debris from the floor such as metal filings and nuts and bolts.

Associate Professor Howie Choset at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute is spearheading an effort to apply coverage path planning technology to robotic vacuum cleaning. The algorithms the organization is developing will direct the robot to cover the floor space completely without user input, user direction or any form of programming. “The inexpensive mobile robot vacuum platform we are building now,” says Choset, “could someday be used to clean industrial waste, toxic spills and even the thick goo that covers chocolate factory floors.”
 
Additional innovations will be on display at the vacuum competition planned for Atlanta Hobby Robot Club’s upcoming 2005 Robot Rally.

Reference websites:
www.nilfisk-advance.com
www.floorbotics.com
www.irobot.com
www.ri.cmu.edu/projects/project_413.html
www.botlanta.org
www.service-robots.org/applications/cleaning.htm

E-mail Contributing Editor Sheila Kennedy, managing director of Additive Communications, at Sheila@addcomm.com.

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