Robotic technology has been making inroads in the research and development community for several years. Although the science varies among competitors, the machines have been thrust into the spotlight by innovations made in sensor technology, improved battery life, GPS mapping, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics. The technology is much like that seen in the prototypes of self-driving cars — but without the risk of crashing at 70 miles per hour.

“First generation machines required programming from a technician to map cleaning paths and they weren’t flexible when cleaning large open areas and new spaces,” says Matt Fussy, portfolio product manager for autonomous floor care at Advance, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. “Mapping technology today creates maps and paths while the operator trains it. And new sensor technology recognizes an obstacle and creates a path around it — older machines would stop and wait for the operator to come back. Autonomous machines today can offer the same productivity as a person.”

Technological advancements mean cleaning robots are poised to be big business, projected to be a market worth $2.5 billion by 2020, according to a study by Markets and Markets. Floor cleaning robots specifically are the largest and fastest growing category, predicted to grow into a $600 million industry by 2020.

For many tech firms, building services is a green market. Still, Brooke Beers, a controller at San Diego-based Brain Corp., says his company couldn’t ignore the opportunities presented by the industry. The software company specializes in self-driving vehicles and saw autonomous cleaning as the perfect meld between artificial intelligence and application.

The company showcased its AI technology in 2016, which combines learning algorithms and vision-based navigation. It is currently being licensed to floor equipment manufacturers.

“The beautiful thing for us is that we never set out to build a floor scrubber,” says Beers. “When it comes to applicability, you tend to see that those monotonous tasks are the ones where this high technology is purposed to solving the world’s problems.”

Krausenik says it was a no-brainer to utilize the technology developed by Brain Corp., adding the buzz around the robots pairs directly with the pain points voiced by its customer base.

“We create machines to provide better tools for janitors,” says Krausenik. “It’s about what’s the best technology, and what we can do to be more effective and create cost-savings. This is the next wave of cleaning products.”

When equipment benefits tout cost savings, it traditionally means there are productivity advantages to its use when compared to alternative cleaning methods. For example, mopping a floor using a mop and bucket will take far longer than it would if a floor scrubber was used.

Now imagine the productivity gains if a worker didn’t have to walk behind the scrubber. Instead, they could focus on a different area entirely while the floor was still being cleaned.

Advance entered the robotic market because “customers were coming to us asking for solutions to improve their productivity and reduce their cost to clean,” says Fussy. “Until recently, autonomous technology wasn’t cost effective enough to provide a reliable solution most customers could justify and see a payback. But the sensors have advanced and come down in price, and the computing power now allows machines to offer the same productivity as a human, while operating safely.”

Entering the commercial cleaning industry was more a matter of vicissitude for Discovery Robotics than initial interest, says McElhattan. The company draws heavily from robotics research teams at nearby Carnegie Mellon, and wanted to launch a company in the same futuristic space.

The start-up identified facility services as the most plausible option upon which to build a serious company.

“The clear winner was robots that cleaned floors,” says McElhattan with a laugh. “There were very few people in the market. We wanted to be a real company and go where the data goes, not just be hobbyists. I’m so glad we did, because we are in a very good place.”

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