The Curious Case of Cleaning Robots

By the year 2000, there were around 30 different cleaning robots available in the market, ranging from heavy, large, and expensive industrial cleaning vehicles to small and compact household devices, with the first introductions reaching back before 1985. However, most of those products were in the research and development phase and hardly made to the commercial stage. The market was waiting for its first commercial non-industrial robot, and then came the first commercially available robot cleaner from Electrolux in Sweden, called the Electrolux Trilobite. It was simple, circular, small, and had a lot to prove. A few more models arrived from European companies like Kärcher, who released the world’s first fully commercial autonomous vacuum robot, the RoboCleaner RC 3000, in 2003, thus marking the dawn of commercially available cleaning robots.

In 2001, the British technology company Dyson demonstrated its first robot vacuum cleaner, DC06, which was so expensive that it never really reached commercial viability. This robot’s price point, at $6,000, was too much for consumers to pay, and the unit featured sophisticated technology including three onboard computers and 70 sensory devices. After a gap of 13 years, Dyson announced its return to the robotic vacuum industry with the Dyson 360 Eye in 2014. But nobody expected that in those 13 years there would a company from the United States that went from offering military products to becoming one of the leading players in the growing market for vacuum cleaning robots. That company, of course, was iRobot. In 2002, iRobot launched its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and as of February 2014, the company had sold more than 10 million of its home robots worldwide. By providing more types of cleaning robots like Scooba (for floor scrubbing), Braava (for floor mopping), Mirra (for pool cleaning), and Looj (for gutter cleaning), there is no looking back for iRobot. According to Dyson, cleaning is a complex task and the company is trying to make a vacuum robot that can completely replace a human instead of making a robot that is used just as a maintenance tool for cleaning.

By 2015, many new players had emerged in the cleaning robot arena and are pursuing innovative technologies and business models in the unclaimed areas of cleaning. Commercial cleaning is attracting the attention of many. The locations to be cleaned are mostly retail stores, airports, offices, hospitals, warehouses, and hotels. The goal is to replace human workers with robots that can work for less than the minimum wage. Companies like Intellibot Robotics, Avidbots, and Cyberdyne are trying to make their presence felt in commercial floor cleaning whereas companies like Maytronics and Aquatron are working on commercial pool cleaning. With the increase in adoption of solar panels, the job of cleaning solar panels is becoming more demanding. SERBOT AG., a Swiss technology firm, is focused on cleaning large solar panels installed on rooftops where manual cleaning has limitations. Cleaning walls in tall commercial buildings is another area being targeted by a few companies. One of the most interesting robots, being developed by DronyX, is for beach cleaning. Their Solarino sand beach cleaner robot is the first eco-friendly, remote-controlled robot that can move on wet and dry sandy terrain and remove rubbish and foreign materials.

Cleaning is a never-ending job, and as long as humanity exists on this planet, cleaning will be needed everywhere. Every day, something new arises that needs to be cleaned where human physical abilities are simply inefficient. There are many pressing global issues related to cleaning where robotics companies, researchers, and innovators can focus and make a bigger impact by developing new efficient robots. Robots are perhaps the best possible cleaning agents, applicable for the disposal of radioactive wastes, removing litter from ocean floors, cleaning oil spills, reducing toxic atmospheric pollutants, and so on. Time is running out and unfortunately there is not enough interest, intent, and motivation from big corporations, prominent research labs, and governing authorities that can actually apply their resources to quickly build efficient robots to clean the planet. Future cleaning robots must step outside the walls of our homes to reach their full potential and by the end of 2025, I expect to see at least one robot successfully working for the global cleaning cause.

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