Home Cleaning Robots Are Looking for a Day Job at the Office

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For generations of TV viewers, The Jetsons represented the vision for the future. It imagined a world with flying cars, jetpacks and a home among the clouds. But avid viewers of the Space Age animated sitcom know the best part of living in the future was Rosey, the robotic household maid that took care of all the housework that hadn’t already taken care of itself. Turns out that, while we might not be living in floating cities anytime soon, we might see Rosey cleaning our rooms sooner than later. A slew of new cleaning robots aimed at fighting infectious disease through cleanliness debuted at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (known to nerdome as CES), bringing Rosey closer to reality than ever before. 

CES 2021 was held virtually, like practically all conferences and expos have been during the pandemic. Because of that fact it’s not surprising that hygiene and cleanliness were the two biggest themes at the world’s largest consumer technology exhibition. Ultra Violet light was the big winner of the entire expo. Portable UV lights, UV lights for your glasses, UV lights for your keyboard, UV lights for your car. If a human touches it or comes near it, some tech company has put a UV light on it or near it to disinfect it. If it can’t clean itself, it’s designed to be cleaned more quickly, or not need cleaning at all. New materials and coatings billed as antimicrobial and antiviral can disinfect themselves. Air filtration was given the same treatment, now available in every size, color and HEPA rating you can imagine. 

A new army of robots designed by businesses on the cutting edge of automation and machine learning are here to make our living and workspaces spotless. Samsung unveiled two new robots, Bot Care and Bot Handy. Bot Care, a knee-high, traditional looking rolling robot, is more of a personal assistant, taking care of ‘all the little details’ in your life, like reminding you of your next meeting or to get up and stretch your legs. Bot Handy is Rosey’s predecessor. At roughly countertop height, the slender robot with a single arm can recognize and grab objects, allowing it to be an extra hand where you need it. Bot Handy uses AI to understand objects, noting its shape and type of material. Samsung says Bot Handy can help set the table, put away groceries and even pour you a bottle of wine. 

Samsung didn’t offer details about price or availability and only demonstrated the robot’s usefulness in a home setting. As any forward thinking technologist can tell you, consumers can often be the slowest adopters, especially at higher price points. Businesses on the other hand are often some of the earliest adopters of new technology, able to put an ROI on large upfront investments in technology. Computers were in offices years before they made their way into people’s homes. Businesses used giant IBM computers that took up an entire office to crunch numbers long before Apple created the desktop at-home computing craze. The same can be said for smartphones. In the 2000s, only the most high-strung businessman had a Palm Pilot or Blackberry. Now everyone has a device that does even more. 

Until now, consumer-facing cleanliness bots are missing their biggest market: offices. Keeping your workspace clean is even more important and businesses are often early adopters of technology. Buildings and offices around the country have even more incentive to keep tenants and employees happy and healthy. Based on what Bot Handy can do around the house, it’s easy to imagine what it could do around the office. Guests and clients need to be welcomed, conference rooms set up, breaks rooms cleaned. After a long day, sometimes you need a robot to pour you a glass of wine at work, too. Tenants and property managers have legions of support staff on-site to handle the day-to-day chores of maintaining an office. It’s hard to put a dollar sign on the cost of an at-home cleaning robot, people aren’t paid for keeping their own home in order. Chores at the office have a price in the form of a cleaner’s wage. The potential to save money on labor gives businesses and buildings a direct financial incentive to adopt something like Bot Handy to take care of the easier tasks, freeing up skilled cleaners to focus on more difficult jobs. 

Bot Handy wasn’t the only trainable robot with arms. ITRI’s Dual Arm Robot System can’t move around, but it does have two arms, meaning it plays piano and serves you a soda at the same time. Several robotic companies are working on similar technology. Movement isn’t the issue, arms are. Replicating the movement, feel and grasp of arms and hands is the holy grail of robotics that everyone is trying to master. Folding laundry seems trivial to humans, but identifying an item in a pile of clothes, grabbing it and folding it is a serious challenge for a robot. Right now robotic tasks are limited to very specific procedures, like making pizza or washing dishes. As engineers and programmers teach robots with arms additional tasks, the tasks they are capable of continues to expand. 

Bot Handy was one of many cleaning robots on display. The most successful ones are aimed at commercial use. Softbank Robotics America recently deployed Whiz, a commercial grade autonomous vacuum the company highlighted at CES 2021. The AI-enabled cleaning robot is the professional older brother of a Roomba, capable of deep cleaning carpets and floors of entire office buildings. Softbank’s Whiz has already sold more than 10,000 units, capturing a 55 percent market share of the autonomous professional cleaning robot market, and now ranks number one globally for cumulative sales of autonomous professional cleaning robots. 

Rosey hasn’t arrived yet. She’s likely a combination of all the cleaning technology mentioned. An autonomous vacuum with high-functioning arms, UV light eyes and an air filtration device for a mouth. When Rosey does arrive, she won’t be cheap. Consumers may say they want robotic maids, but are they willing to finance the purchase? Consumer-facing products may make for interesting headlines, but they don’t move units of emerging technology. Targeting commercial operations with big corporate bank accounts and financial incentives to improve operations will give robotic manufacturers the traction they need. Commercial interest in robotics will lead to better, cheaper products that eventually will matriculate into the consumer market just as computers did. Rosey needs a day job before she can become a housewife.

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