The common thread we keep hearing is the need to self isolate, limit human contact, practice social distancing, and what that equates to is the growing importance of automation. How so? The more automation technology available to us, the less need for people to manually do things. Automation allows traditional steps required to be skipped, typically saving people time, and therefore money. But now, we need to look at automation through the lens of eliminating as many steps as possible that require human to human contact.
Couple this increased demand for automation with a need for sanitary conditions. Humans create messes. We leave germs behind in our wake, so even if you haven’t had physical contact with another human, you could have second degree contact by being in a place they’ve been. We are all now well aware of just how long viruses can live in a variety of environments. The COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably have lasting effects on society and human behavior, inevitably creating needs and opportunities that may not have previously been viewed as a priority, but now are.
Cleaning automation, particularly in large commercial spaces, will now be a priority. People who inhabit these spaces, and who will be inhabiting them (once the time comes to reopen offices and non-essential businesses), will want to know these places are clean and safe. Whether as workers, patrons, managers, tenants, or owners, people will be much more inquisitive about how the spaces they occupy are cleaned, not just one time to disinfect, but on a regular basis going forward.
We now understand the preventative measures that should be taken to minimize risks for not only pandemic threats, but for any kind of viral contagion. Even a simple strain of the flu can immobilize large quantities of people if given the right conditions in which to spread. COVID-19 has been the catalyst to highlight the importance of proper cleaning protocols and ways to mitigate the spread of disease, including social distancing. In taking all of this into consideration, I think it’s safe to say the market for commercial cleaning automation is poised to grow exponentially in the coming years.
Given the tremendous square footage of commercial spaces, cleaning automation isn’t a new concept. In fact, “cleaning is the fifth largest industry in the world,” according to Kass Dawson, the Head of Strategy and Marketing Communications at Softbank Robotics. Softbank Robotics has developed a robotic vacuum called Whiz, which uses lidar technology, computer vision, and proprietary algorithms to navigate and clean commercial spaces.
Brady Watkins, the Head of Commercial Automation for Softbank Robotics, explains that “over 50 percent of commercial spaces are carpeted, which means a lot of time and manpower has traditionally been dedicated to vacuuming,” or in some cases, spot cleaning is interspersed with regular vacuuming to save time. However, Watkins says that cutting corners means sacrificing air quality because carpeting acts as a filter for debris and dust, so when it is cleaned less frequently, that debris and dust simply collects and builds up. When people walk through the space or when furniture is moved, the debris, dust, and possible contaminants that have collected there are then stirred up, diminishing the air quality. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic about building health, it’s the importance of air quality.
Perhaps more importantly, automated vacuum cleaners allow people to focus on more important tasks. For cleaning crews, that time could be spent sanitizing high touch surfaces. Dawson refers to this as “cobotics,” or how robots and humans can work together to optimize performance. He says, “Robots aren’t here to steal jobs. Robots are a part of augmenting the workforce of the future.” Vacuuming can be a monotonous, repetitive task that requires little thought, so by using robots like Whiz to take care of the carpet, humans are able to accomplish more.
Other automated cleaning solutions include the use of UV lights. An article about “clean tech” automation recently reported a company that produces UV light-emitting robots has seen a huge increase in demand since the outbreak began in China and that some studies show significant decreases in the spread of infection in healthcare facilities that use UV lights to kill microbes. We recently published an article discussing Well building standards, and one of their air quality optimizations called for the use of UV lights to filter particulate matter from HVAC units. For non-carpeted floors, the Neo by Avidbots is being used in commercial spaces like airports. Again, these technologies don’t replace humans, but they offer a clean foundation for humans to build upon manually.
Cleaning automation doesn’t always require robots, either. Another company Microshare deploys sensors for all kinds of uses within healthcare facilities to help automate a number of things, one of which can be to alert the facility when more than just a routine cleaning might be needed. Push button sensors can be used in operating rooms as a way for staff to signal when a deep clean might be needed after a person with an infectious disease was treated in the space. Other sensors are able to read and transmit air temperature and water quality data, which can be used to determine predictive cleaning patterns as well as set optimal conditions for disease transmission reduction.
For a lot of people, the cleanliness of the buildings they frequent may not have been at the forefront of their mind, but now it is something we all think about. The external environment that surrounds our bodies has a profound impact on our internal health. Before COVID-19, health was often viewed as something largely individual, meaning if you do what you’re supposed to care for your body, you have a much better chance at maintaining optimal health. While that assumption still holds truth, people have come to the startling realization that doing what you’re supposed to now includes everyone’s participation in upholding external environmental health parameters. Maintaining optimal health means we all have to take the necessary steps away from one another. It also means the environments we share have to uphold a better standard of clean. Automated cleaning allows for both of those things to happen simultaneously, but the necessary protocols to implement it should begin now in order to minimize risk in spaces that are currently occupied and better prepare spaces that will soon begin to reopen.