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Avidbots Wants to Automate Commercial Cleaning With Robots

Can autonomous robots break into the commercial cleaning market?

2 min read
Avidbots Wants to Automate Commercial Cleaning With Robots
Image: Avidbots

Vacuuming is one of the few markets where robots have proven that they can be consistently commercially successful. There's a good reason for this: vacuuming is a repetitive, time-intensive task that has to be performed over and over again in environments that are relatively constrained. Despite the success of several companies in the home robot vacuum space, we haven't seen many low cost platforms designed for commercial areas, but a startup called Avidbots is tackling this idea, and they've got operational prototypes.

The problem that these robots are really going to have to solve is the same problem that the Roomba struggles with: cleaning robots are not a substitute for a cleaning human. A Roomba (to use a recognizable example) is a maintenance tool, designed to keep your floors cleaner, longer. But, no matter how often you use your Roomba, you'll still need to occasionally bust out the upright vacuum yourself. It'll be far lass often than you would without a Roomba, but it'll still need to happen, because humans can visually identify dirt and manually maneuver cleaning equipment into places that robots can't reach.

In the case of the Avidbots, you can see in the demo that despite their care with edging, they still miss some areas in corners, close to walls, near complex obstacles, underneath objects that should be temporarily moved, and so forth. Over time, those areas are going to get super dirty, and you'll need to bring in a human to clean them. You'll also have to have humans around to maintain the robots, cleaning them out, replacing fluids, and charging them if they don't auto dock. You'll certainly spend way less human time and labor on cleaning (which is the point, of course), but we're not yet at the point where we can just leave robots completely on their own to perform tasks in human environments.

Existing platforms in this commercial cleaning space are generally huge robotic cleaning behemoths, and I like Avidbot's approach of making what looks to be (at least in their concept image) a robot that's more like an existing cleaning platform designed for humans, except with added autonomy. This gives the robot much more flexibility, increasing the value for the user, who might need to spend an extra five minutes taking manual control to spot clean where the robot missed.

Whether or not Avidbots is successful is going to depend heavily on how much money a business can save by transitioning from a human cleaning crew to a robot cleaning crew. Avidbots has some optimistic numbers on this: they're planning on selling their sweeper robot for $7,500 and the scrubber robot for $13,500, or you can rent them for $4 and $6 per hour respectively, inclusive of warranty and service.

If you straight up match these costs with the costs of a human cleaning crew you come out way ahead (saving, as Avidbots calculates, anywhere from about 50 to 70 percent over the course of a year), but this may not take into account some of the other issues that we talked about, including the need for humans to still come in and clean once in a while, robot maintenance, and so forth.

Overall, we like this startup idea. It's an area that seems like it can be automated and commercialized, and Avidbots is off to a good start with prototype robots that actually work. We'll follow up on them once some real businesses start testing the robots and can tell us how effective (in terms of cost and cleanliness) they are. 

[ Avidbots ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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