Post Covid-19: Could Robots Keep Your Workspace Clean?

Robot cleaners are already used to clean hospitals and corporate premises, and they could be used in offices too.
  • Robot cleaners are already used to clean hospitals and corporate premises.
  • Both conventional and UV disinfection robots are now available.
  • Holographic receptionists could also help maintain hygiene levels.

Robots are best suited for jobs deemed too dull, dirty or dangerous for humans. As COVID restrictions start to ease, we may need to rely on a robotic workforce more to keep our offices clean and help the world’s workers safely return to their desks.

Why robots? Well, putting more people into a workspace to clean it could increase the spread of the disease. 

What’s more, we don’t know how stringent workplace hygiene guidelines may be going forward. You may need to clean on a more regular basis, for example, which will increase your labour costs and contamination risks. Plus, robots are adept at repetition, literally not cutting any corners when it comes to cleaning every nook and cranny of your office space.

Suggested Reading: Coworking Post COVID-19: Cleanliness will be the New Normal

Robots have already been used on the COVID-19 frontline. In March of this year, a hospital in Wuhan reportedly opened a wing for Coronavirus patients staffed by robots that can clean, monitor vital signs and deliver food. In Thailand, a canine-like robot called K9 is patrolling a shopping mall with hand sanitiser, ready to dispense it to passing shoppers.

But could these machines help keep our workspaces clean?

#1 Robot janitors

If you want to go to the hygiene-extreme, then you could always bring in a disinfection robot. Writing in Science Robotics, a team of researchers claim: “Instead of manual disinfection, which requires workforce mobilisation and increases exposure risk to cleaning personnel, autonomous or remote-controlled disinfection robots could lead to cost-effective, fast, and effective disinfection.”

“New generations of robots, from macro- to microscale, could be developed to navigate high-risk areas and continually work to sterilise all high-touch surfaces.”

These developments are already underway. Researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have reportedly developed a semi-autonomous robot that can disinfect large surfaces quickly. Using the robot, called eXtreme Disinfection roBOT (XDBOT), you can wirelessly control the bot to disinfect your office surfaces. 

Similar technologies are already finding a place in the real world. Retail giant Walmart uses autonomous floor scrubbers and other robotic devices to automatically scan shelf inventories. Speaking to CNN, Walmart says these “smart assistants” will reduce the amount of time workers spend on “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks in stores. 

Other chains are following suit, with Giant Food Stores using a googly-eyed robot called “Marty” to search for and clean up aisle spillages.

#2 Shine a light

Disinfection using ultraviolet light is another option, where germs, bacteria, viruses and other nasties are destroyed by a beam of concentrated light. A Danish company called UVD Robots has already shipped hundreds of UV-enabled disinfectant robots in hospitals and other such public spaces. However, the devices cost around $67,000 each, according to reports from the BBC.

A team from Trinity College Dublin has also developed a similar device called Violet. The device is still in the prototype stages, but a recent report in Time magazine claims the team are “focused on making Violet portable and compact enough to be able to operate in tight, crowded spaces that are otherwise hard to clean: bathrooms, waiting areas, the nooks and crannies of public transit.”

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#3 Autonomous temperature checks

While questions remain surrounding the suitability of thermal scanners to detect COVID-19, some companies are revamping existing robotics to include this feature.

An Israeli startup, Robotemi, has developed the AI-powered Temi robot assistant to minimise human-to-human contact. The three-foot-tall robot has a tablet device for a head and moves about on four small wheels. 

The device was originally designed to act as a companion robot. When the COVID-19 outbreak started, the company reportedly retrofitted the robot with a thermometer, thermal camera and sink, allowing people to wash their hands.

The company claims the robot has been rolled out to “hundreds of hospitals, medical centres, nursing homes, and corporate buildings in Asia”. Speaking to the NoCamels publication, Robotemi CEO Gal Goren, said: “In China, there are regulations currently in place where an employee arriving at the office must get his body temperature before continuing his day. Temi is standing at the front door waiting for him.”

#4 Holo helpers

Could robots staff your workspace entirely? We’ve already seen robot receptionists and other roles delegated to our AI-enabled friends, but a holographic receptionist is another possible option in the post-COVID world of work.

RICOH Virtual Self-Service Holograms are already available, where a virtual receptionist can greet your workspace members or work as a concierge to give directions, for example. What’s more, you can update these virtual units over the internet, allowing you to deploy these solutions over multiple locations. 

Rise of the robots?

The coronavirus pandemic has already accelerated many workplace trends that have been growing slowly for years. Automation is just another example of this phenomenon.

Suggested Reading: Future of Work: How the IoT, AI, and Robotics can help Keep Workplaces Clean and Safe

With social distancing directives likely to continue as the crisis subsides, we may need to get more comfortable working alongside robotic counterparts to help minimise human contact – and exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

“Pre-pandemic, people might have thought we were automating too much,” said Richard Pak, a professor at Clemson University, speaking to the NY Times. “This event is going to push people to think what more should be automated.”

Of course, there is a more extreme example. One where AI-enabled technologies such as AR- and VR-based holoportation remove the need to ever physically enter a shared workspace again – allowing members to collaborate in a virtual coworking space instead. 

While this would certainly remove the chance of COVID-19 contamination in your workspace — it would also remove the need for your workspace altogether. And this seems unlikely. If there’s one thing COVID-19 has universally highlighted to the world’s population, it’s our human need for a human touch. (Just as long as the robots are around to tidy up after us.)

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