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The future of the cleaning sector - robots?29th of October 2014
German correspondent Thomas Schulte-Marxloh on the future of robots in the cleaning sector.
The future according to Star Trek is bright: a peaceful coexistence of races and cultures on earth, a brotherhood of man enjoying advanced technology: both, the so-called ‘transporter’ as well as the ‘replicator’ represent breathtaking and elegant solutions for present problems. Unfortunately, the creators of Star Trek did not let us know who or what keeps that perfect world tidy.
While robots and automation are present in many industries already, they do not play an important role in the contract cleaning industry today where manual work is still dominant. However, automated or semi-automated cleaning devices have been employed for years - for instance to clean glass roofs or façades or swimming pools.
About 70 per cent customers of the contract cleaning industry want the floors of their offices to be cleaned and the waste bins emptied. In order to find an automated solution for these requests scientists of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA have developed software to operate a respective mobile robot which autonomously cleans offices or other business premises. Apart from this and other applications the modular software architecture allows an easy transfer of individual hardware and software components from one robot system to another.
The robot – a further development of the service robot Care-O-Bot 3 (www.care-o-bot.de) – autonomously inspects the customers’ offices in order to detect dirt that has to be removed; the device recognises, maps and finally removes dirt automatically. If, for instance, a coffee stain cannot be removed by the robot with its built-in broom, the robot maps the stain and informs the cleaning personnel who then can take action.
Moreover, the robot recognises dust bins, inspects them visually and identifies those dust bins which have to be emptied. With its arm and ‘fingers’ the robot can grab the waste bin and empty it into a collecting box.
It is not easy to imitate human capacities and the robot is based on complex technology. This is true for both hardware and soft-ware. A number of human capacities that we take for granted require advanced technologies. Problems like navigation, object detection, or co-ordination between the robot’s arm and its mobile platform – had to be solved to create a service robot with different functions. After all, this is already the third generation of the service robot which in the first place was designed to provide services to (mainly elderly) people in their homes.
In order to meet the professional requirements of the contract cleaning industry, the developers of the device cooperate with Dussmann Service. Presently the service robot Care-O-Bot 3, designed by Fraunhofer IPA, serves as the hardware basis. However, according to Fraunhofer IPA the modular software structure allows a medium-term transfer of the conceptual solution to a tailor-made and cost-efficient robot platform. Last December first functional trials with the prototype were carried out in Berlin.
Of course, technology is still in its infancy; still the robot needs service and someone to remove the dust from it. Nevertheless, automation and robotics are highly attractive and certainly on the rise, finally, in the contract cleaning industry.