How Autonomous Cleaning Mobile Robots Help During COVID-19 Pandemic

The recent health crisis has brought the value of automation and robotics into sharp focus. More and more businesses are considering leveraging intelligent, self-driving machines to help improve operational efficiencies and increase worker productivity across several key markets.

How Autonomous Cleaning Mobile Robots Help During COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo by Eric Krull
How Autonomous Cleaning Mobile Robots Help During COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo by Eric Krull

But what should businesses be thinking about if they want to invest in robotic solutions?

Read on this article to learn what the experts at ABI Research have to say about the benefits and growing adoption of autonomous solutions. In this article, you will learn:

  • Why the recent health crisis is driving increased AMR adoption
  • Which robotic applications are the most popular
  • The benefits of a centralized platform solution to manage robotic fleets
  • Specific strategy recommendations to consider over the next 24 months

Table of contents

Executive Summary
The Impact of COVID-19
Before the Virus
Impact on Autonomous Mobile Robots
The Value of AMRs for Emerging Markets
The Value of Autonomous Mobile Robots in Responding to COVID-19
Application for AMRs in Emerging Markets
Many Robots, One Platform
The Retail Store as a Proving Ground for a Centralized Platform
The Value of a Centralized Platform to the End-user
Takeaways
The Benefits of the OEM Model for Early Adoption
Factor in Pedigree and Deployment Over Technology when Choosing a Partner
Develop a 24-Month Strategy for Implementing Robotics Solutions

Executive Summary

The fastest growing and most consequential segment of the robotics industry is the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) space. This refers to mobile autonomous systems that are equipped with advanced navigation technology, and thus do not require external infrastructure to localize themselves within an environment. These systems rely on a mixture of sensors, AI-enabled software, and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithms. This higher level of navigation capability allows robots to operate without the assistance of magnetic tape or bar codes. So they can be deployed in commercial environments like retail stores, airports, and other public spaces.

Currently, there are several thousand AMRs deployed in the public environment. In many cases, these systems are tasked with cleaning retail and grocery stores, office buildings, malls and airports, with vendor Brain Corp powering the largest commercial fleet of public-facing AMRs in the world. The coronavirus has profoundly upended the global economy, with major disruptions to supply chains, commercial operations, and labour availability. As a result, robots are needed more than ever to increase productivity, supplement the labour market, and enable end-users to achieve more with less.

Those end-users that begin deploying AMRs now will be rewarded with a more robust operation that can be trusted to operate in a world where pandemics and other major externalities are increasingly prevalent. The deployment of AMRs is also essential to nascent markets, such as retail and grocery, where challenges in labour shortages force companies to become more efficient. Those that are slow to incorporate this promising technology will not just see lower productivity but will miss out on the dividends paid by robotic platforms, which will be a key generator for data analysis and IoT insights in the next 5 to 10 years.

The growth of the AMR industry was already in motion, but in a post-COVID world, demand will explode. End users will need to work with vendors to develop a platform approach, which can centralize the tools and competencies necessary to maintain and expand diverse fleets of robots at scale.

The Impact of COVID-19

Before the Virus

Before the onset of COVID-19, the larger AMR industry was in a strong position, particularly in the United States, where the ecosystem is heavily concentrated in California and Greater Boston. The healthy state of the industry was based on a few key fundamentals:

  • The primary role played by Amazon and other large American companies in deploying mobile robots at unprecedented scale (in the hundreds of thousands)
  • Improvements in and accessibility to autonomous navigation through cheaper sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), increased adoption, and more edge cases resulting from deployment
  • The dividends of academic research, most notably from institutions like Willow Garage, and the availability of open-source robotics platforms
  • Massive funding from the corporate and venture worlds, especially for the autonomous passenger vehicle (APV) space, for surgical robots, for warehouse robotics, as well as for enabling technologies in the AI, connectivity, and services spaces.

The groundwork had been laid for a massive expansion in the AMR ecosystem, with companies offering form products and solutions for every use case. Only a small number of these had become commercially viable, and an even smaller number had deployed over 1,000 units. Many deployments were pilot tests or preliminary, and end-users still needed convincing.

Impact on Autonomous Mobile Robots

The onset of the coronavirus massively disrupted the global economy, causing significant disruption to worker operations and crippling supply chains. Cue the need for public-facing AMRs to supplement human labour and carry out dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks.

AMRs, and in particular AMRs for public-facing applications, are a small but rapidly growing market. A wide range of use cases has been demonstrated to be practical, and COVID-19 has led to many robot vendors garnering unprecedented interest, notably in cleaning and disinfection.

A significant crisis like the pandemic is a major challenge for such a young industry. End users with grand deployment strategies suddenly halt all rollouts, and vendors have to change up their deployment and marketing strategies. However, this is also a huge opportunity to demonstrate the value of robots and their ability to operate effectively during challenging business times.

Businesses deemed essential by governments, including grocery, medical technology and supplies, and e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail, have enjoyed strong demand in the first half of 2020. While the initial increase in sales from the lockdown will be tempered by the general weakness of the global economy, essential businesses are showing more interest in automation, which will be key to building resilience in the future. Those who invested early have been rewarded. Retailers were among those making preemptive investments in cleaning robots before the pandemic and so have reaped the benefits of autonomous cleaning. Despite the challenge of the present crisis, the demonstrable value of accessible mobile automation in the wake of COVID-19 means the long-term future of AMRs as a strategic technology will be accelerated.

The Value of AMRs for Emerging Markets

The Value of Autonomous Mobile Robots in Responding to COVID-19

There are two levels on which to analyze how AMRs help mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19, the public and the business level.

The Public Level: The use of autonomous and remotely operated systems for emergency government responses has been well-documented throughout the 21st century. From bomb-disarming systems being used in warzones to mobile manipulation platforms inspecting the Fukushima wreckage, to automated robots with fire cannons used during the Notre Dame fire in 2019, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are an increasingly centralized tool in the inventory of government agencies, fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and first responders.

The pandemic has demanded new approaches to reduce proximity between workers and keep operations running while managing to avoid exposure. This has resulted in expanded interest in AMRs that can take on tasks, such as cleaning and movement of inventory and goods, to supplement a constrained workforce.

In COVID-19, the challenge is not dealing with dangerous material or working in toxic, hazardous environments, but in using robots for a huge range of use cases necessary to deal with a public health disaster. These use cases include:

  • Last-mile delivery
  • Material handling
  • Cleaning and sweeping
  • Disinfection
  • Surveillance

The Business Level: COVID-19 has forced wide-ranging adaptation from the business world, notably with the further popularization of teleconferencing platforms like Zoom. In that case, a well-understood technology that has matured over a long time has suddenly increased markedly. For the less mature robotics industry, the coronavirus has highlighted how automation is a vital supplement to maintaining business continuity in times of considerable uncertainty. Warehouse and fulfilment center automation, which has driven the adoption of mobile robots for the last decade, will see an increase in automation as both e-commerce and omnichannel retail are expanded. Countries like Italy and Spain have seen significant increases in e-commerce relative to traditional retail demand, but it is not guaranteed these gains will be permanent. To maintain those gains, e-tailers will need to increase productivity to execute shorter delivery times while not increasing cost. The rise of automation in e-commerce has a knock-on effect in leading traditional retailers to create omnichannel strategies that allow for online delivery, further strengthening the business case for warehouse automation. As e-commerce automates, so must brick-and-mortar establishments. The robotic use cases expected to benefit on a more strategic scale include:

  • Robot consultancy services and service providers for deployment
  • Cleaning and maintenance
  • Material handling and in-store delivery tugs
  • Pick and pack for order .fulfilment
  • Data-collection robots

Application for AMRs in Emerging Markets

The Busy Environment versus the Controlled Space

Emerging markets for robotics differ from established markets in a few key ways. AMRs have been deployed to a high degree in controlled environments like factories and warehouses. In these operations, the workforce is technically proficient and trained to work with robots, space is closed to the public, the safety regulations are more lenient due to the lack of pedestrians, and the environments are more predictable. For emerging public markets like the retail space, AMRs require a more sophisticated technology stack to move around safely and operate autonomously within crowds, without the need for constant human intervention. They also need to have a different safety regime as they are working around the general public.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Automated vacuum cleaners have been popularized for decades among consumers, with the largest vendors like iRobot, Neato Robotics, and Ecovacs selling millions of units annually. These systems have gone from rudimentary systems with basic collision sensors to autonomous robots with simultaneous localization and mapping. In the last 5 years, this success in the consumer space has slowly manifested in the corporate sector, as retailers like Walmart, Kroger, Giant Eagle, Simon Property Group, and others deploy BrainOS®-powered cleaning systems on their store floors. Though heavily localized in retail and grocery stores, autonomous cleaning vehicles are quickly being rolled out in airports, malls, office buildings, hospitals, and warehouse locations.

At least part of the acceleration in adoption is due to increased sensitivity to cleaning operations in the wake of COVID-19, as well as the need to document the cleanliness of locations with effective performance metrics and to report through real-time data collection.

Tighter labour markets also mean that employees are increasingly burdened with too many tasks to focus on cleaning (other tasks include restocking, customer service, etc.). Autonomous cleaning, therefore, is essential to bolstering the post-COVID retail workforce because it gives valuable time back to workers to engage in other duties. For example, Brain Corp-powered machines are currently providing more than 12,000 hours of daily work, equal to 360,000+ hours per month, according to company data. This is productivity given back to over-extended employees.

There are many subdivisions of cleaning vehicles, including vacuums, scrubbers, sweepers, burnishers, and polishers.

  • Numbers: Tens of Thousands of AMRs
  • Vendors of Note: Brain Corp (autonomy software provider for OEMs), BlueBotics, Avidbots, UVD Robotics
  • End Users: Most workplaces

Inventory Management and Data Collection

The primary value of the myriad sensors used by robots is to perceive, map, localize, and navigate through different environments. But they are also potentially of huge value as a mobile IoT platform that generates terabytes of data about the environment that can subsequently be used to generate insights. A prime example is stock- keeping and inventory management. A robot might move around a retail store, check the relative availability of certain items on the shelves, and then send that data to cloud platforms. There, third parties can deliver powerful analytic insights, such as planogram compliance to optimize stock for maximum profitability. With well over a trillion dollars wasted annually in global retail stock inefficiencies, mobile robots will be superior to fixed IoT sensors in collecting actionable information.

  • Numbers: Over 1,000 systems deployed in public environments
  • Vendors of Note: Brain Corp, Simbe Robotics, Bossa Nova, Pensa Systems, Exyn Technologies
  • End Users: Retailers and e-tailers

Material Handling and In-Store Delivery

Robot work is best when dull, dirty, and dangerous, and a large part of that job in the supply chain is moving objects, items, and supplies from point A to point B. AGVs have been in the robot landscape for decades in warehouses, and since 2012, Amazon’s Kiva robots have been deployed in the hundreds of thousands. There are now other warehouse automation companies with tens of thousands of AGVs deployed. At the same time, AMRs are increasingly being used, and are now deployed in the tens of thousands across warehouse fulfilment and intralogistics in the manufacturing space. These are all based in environments that are closed off to the public. Still, public-facing AMRs that can safely handle material in more challenging environments like outdoor yards and retail stores are slowly gaining traction.

For retailers, the need to increase throughput while increasing the mix of SKUs demands more productivity in the first mile of delivery (material handling). Meanwhile, for manufacturers, more customization is creating huge challenges to keep up the pace of production. In both cases, material handling robots are proving their value.

Increasingly, material handling robots are moving outdoors. Yard trucks, delivery vehicles, and outdoor heavy vehicles are becoming automated at an accelerated pace. As an example, Komatsu has automated over 150 haulage trucks for mining operations. Another, the more nascent application would be in-store handling in retail stores, with Brain Corp’s autonomous delivery tug expected to fill a niche in the market. This includes moving goods from the back warehouse to store shelves, which accelerates restocking while also allowing for the redeployment of workers and improving safety. It also includes potential usage for pick-and-pack fulfilment orders, as more brick-and-mortar stores take online orders.

Last-mile delivery is one of the major use cases advertised since the coronavirus, with e-commerce vendors like JD.com rolling out robots for last-mile delivery in Wuhan to deliver medical supplies. In the United States, Nuro has expanded its operations to deliver for food banks and medical facilities across multiple states.

  • Numbers: Over 250,000 AGVs, over 10,000 AMRs currently installed
  • Vendors: Brain Corp, Seegrid, BlueBotics, Vecna Robotics, InVia Robotics, Nuro, Starship Technologies
  • End-users: E-commerce, brick-and-mortar, warehousing and fulfilment, manufacturing, and field applications

A Step Beyond Stationary Solutions for Smart Cities

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for municipal authorities to make cities resilient, both for public health and for commercial resilience. While data collection technologies and sensors are being deployed to track coronavirus and population compliance with authority directives, the smart city infrastructure can also be deployed to track consumer metrics, congestion, pollution, safety, cost of living, crime, and many other subcategories of metropolitan life.

Smart city solutions have traditionally centred around single-point solutions for static infrastructures, such as “smart” streetlights, kiosks, bins, and CCTV cameras. They have also relied on amalgamating data from individual “smart buildings” to develop broader intelligence. This is limited in the data that is collected and does not provide significant long-term benefits to smart city initiatives. AMRs, which by definition are equipped with an array of sensors and powerful processing hardware, are ideal for collecting visual and sensory data that can then be processed and turned into valuable insights for a wide variety of metrics. They have the advantage of mobility and thus offer a significant step up from single-point solutions.

  • Numbers: Very limited
  • Vendors: Brain Corp, Postmates, Navya, Cobalt Robotics, Softbank Robotics, Knightscope
  • End Users: IoT providers, municipal governments, retailers

Many Robots, One Platform

For many end-users, mobile robotics seems like a highly fractured market ecosystem. There are dozens of well-known players using variations of the same navigation technology (natural feature, SLAM) to enable different use cases. A fractured market, though necessary to account for the huge variety in needs and solutions, limits adoption and makes the barrier to entry high. There are dozens of individual companies offering a massive range of competencies for AMRs:

  • Fleet management
  • Motion control software
  • Navigation software
  • Sensors
  • Machine vision
  • Software development kits

The end-user community should therefore be looking for a singular robotic platform that can provide navigation, safety, mobility, and value-added services across different markets that does not require the assistance of external consultants, distributors, or system integrators. Such a platform would accelerate the rate of adoption for mobile robotics across a wide range of industries by providing end-users with a centralized portal to access solutions.

AMR Shipments in Brick-and-Mortar (000s)
AMR Shipments in Brick-and-Mortar (000s)

The Retail Store as a Proving Ground for a Centralized Platform

Cleaning, in-store inventory delivery, and shelf-scanning use cases are accelerating across brick-and-mortar retail, especially in North America, where companies like Walmart and Kroger spend billions in deploying new technologies at scale. The table below highlights the enormous demand for AMRs in brick-and-mortar retail, with 290,000 shipments expected by 2030.

While the demand is there, the end-user needs to manage this enormous increase in AMRs. With more automation comes more data to process, more potential for things to go wrong, and more chances for different robot types to collide with each other.

The Value of a Centralized Platform to the End-user

Currently, most AMR deployments only involve one robot deployed for one task, such as cleaning floors. There are not many current operations that combine a wide variety of AMRs that are doing multiple tasks.

For that to work, there needs to be a common interface and a centralized software and operations platform through which both the robot developer and the end-user can monitor the fleet. The interoperability afforded by a centralized platform would allow both providers and end-users to process and harmonize data to get a better picture of a robotic operation for a whole range of necessary issues to track.

Fleet Management: A centralized management system allows for complete oversight of the AMR fleet, from an individual retail store to a company-wide assessment. One of the biggest benefits is consolidated reporting. If all the robots report to one portal, it makes it easier to review and manage robot productivity at the individual store level and across a wider fleet.

In addition to being able to monitor and measure the performance of the robots, centralized fleet management software will lead to long-term improvements in charging solutions. With a centralized platform, varied robotic fleets will eventually shift from the manual battery swapping to opportunity charging, which automates the charging process and reduces human intervention.

In the long term, having a centralized platform allows for individual robots from separate vendors to be directed to work in sync with each other to optimize utilization.

Safety and Cybersecurity: Documenting errors and the issues related to mobile robots is essential to building confidence in the technology. Different safety-related issues are going to affect different robots, with material handling systems having different risks to cleaning robots and vice-versa. A centralized platform can consolidate to avoid redundancy by leveraging the same built-in safety standards.

This system is tested and vetted against a wide array of edge cases, meaning that with more applications comes more comprehensive safety systems. A centralized platform can also provide unified cybersecurity protocols and encryption across all AMRs. This takes the pressure off the customer’s IT workforce and enhances security throughout the operation.

User Experience and Interface (UX and UI): Public-facing robots are not likely to be operated by or working with professionally qualified roboticists or technically proficient workforces, as they might be in factories. The familiarity of a centralized platform for different robotic applications allows for a simplified and consistent UI and UX, making deployment and operation significantly easier at scale and across diverse workforces.

Analytics: Beyond informing various key performance indicators, robots can also build vast troves of invaluable data on the environment, which are translated into more sophisticated performance metrics, including:

  • Total autonomous hours
  • Square footage covered
  • Assists per hour
  • Percentage in autonomous mode
  • Heat maps showing daily route coverage
  • Number of deliveries (for autonomous in-store transport)
  • Total distance (for autonomous in-store transport)
  • Total runtime
  • Several routes completed.

These metrics can be filtered by time period (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly), customer, robot, and more. They can also be correlated to efficiency and productivity. For example, the daily autonomous hours metric is the amount of time you are giving back to employees. Total distance for in-store delivery is the number of steps and miles you are saving employees, etc.

In the case of cleaning robots in retail stores, this level of granularity enables end-users to define usage compliance metrics and measure against them, a key function during a pandemic. Not only can a retail end-user set a cleaning standard across their stores, but they can also now measure compliance against that standard, ensuring the environment is safer for both customers and staff.

A centralized robotic platform can also hold the data in the cloud for third-party specialists to derive further insights, or they can bring predictive and prescriptive analytics into their own portfolio.

For the end-user, the centralized platform harmonizes operations, provides the necessary granularity to make long term efficiencies, and provides a base from which to build a diversified fleet of AMRs for the public space.

Takeaways

The Benefits of the OEM Model for Early Adoption

Many AMR developers are manufacturing purpose-built robots from the ground up. But a smaller number of vendors, like Brain Corp, have engaged in an OEM model strategy where they partner with original equipment manufacturers to convert manual equipment into AMRs. Brain Corp is the largest of these vendors and has automated cleaning equipment from top floor care manufacturers like Tennant Company, Nilfisk, Kärcher, Minuteman, and Softbank Robotics.

The benefits of an OEM model are cost-effectiveness, the ability to automate a wider variety of systems for different use cases, and the fact that the robot developer is utilizing the expertise and pedigree of companies who have served their particular markets for decades. While purpose-built robot developers are building from the ground up and ploughing resources into manufacturing, product converters can redeploy efforts to value-added services and building a solution beyond the hardware.

The OEM model is also the fastest method to market, with comparatively less energy being placed on the manufacturing and design phase, and more placed in software development and operations. The end-user is also assured of the product’s existing quality.

For OEMs, partnering with robotics companies is the first step to building their own robots from the ground up, to run them on centralized platforms for development and operations. This will lead to OEMs competing directly with much smaller robotics companies who are focused on custom robot designs. With their significant advantage in size and capital, the OEM platform partnerships are likely to dominate AMR development in the long term.

For end-users, the OEM model means a more cost-effective solution with greater flexibility and a shorter time to market. It is, therefore, unsurprising that end-users like Walmart and others have been deploying thousands of automated ride-on scrubbers.

Factor in Pedigree and Deployment Over Technology when Choosing a Partner

The number and variety of AMR developers in the United States is considerable. Of those that exist, only a select few have deployed hundreds of units, and an even smaller number have deployed over 1,000. Impressive technology solutions are increasingly centralized and available, but what the robotics industry lacks is companies with strong records of deploying, maintaining and managing large fleets. Those that do, such as Brain Corp, which has deployed more than 10,000 robots through its OEM partners, have processed more edge cases, and are dedicating more time to improving back-end software to improve the end-user experience. With more experience comes a more refined solution to better to avoid redundancy, that is capable of managing the demands of the business scale.

Develop a 24-Month Strategy for Implementing Robotics Solutions

COVID-19 is a once-in-a-generation event, bringing massive challenges to providers and end-users alike. Automation and the rollout of AMRs have accelerated over the past five years and will grow dramatically over the next ten, with almost all commercial markets seeing deployment. Because of this, there are seven issues to consider for the next 24 months:

  • Check for self-deployment: How much time, and money can you afford to deploy for system integration? Choose vendors with a track record of deploying thousands of AMRs, and ask about self-deployment capability. Inquire about how many robots the vendor has deployed and researched the satisfaction of their customers.
  • Be an early adopter: Automation increased after the 2008 market crash. Expect competitors to invest heavily within 24 months. There will be a rebound after a downturn in investment, so consider the potential benefits of being an early adopter. Those companies that invested before COVID-19 have enjoyed less disruption to their operations, highlighting the importance of being an early adopter.
  • Pick a vendor with experience in multiple markets: What are the applications you could or should automate? If you have three or four applications in mind, try and work with platform providers who have experience working across many markets, rather than sourcing from entirely separate entities.
  • Infrastructure: How much computing power and infrastructure would you need to facilitate a fleet of robots? Are you already partnered with relevant service providers to assist in this?
  • Workforce Readiness: How ready is your workforce to work alongside robots? Are they trained? What services can get them up to speed the fastest?
  • Resiliency: Can your operation sustain long-term labour disruption if COVID-19 remains a problem for several years?
  • Anticipated ROI: Regardless of the offering, AMR deployments take time and require planning to deliver the desired revenue savings. How long is your expected ROI?

The coronavirus will supercharge the availability of AMR solutions. End-users need to begin incorporating them now or risk being left behind.

Source: Brain Corporation

Published by Emma Watson

, an Information Technology Engineer By qualification who loves to write about Windows, macOS and technical solutions for various error and problems. Coming from a solid background in PC building and software development, with complete expertise in touch-based devices, I am constantly keeping an eye out for the latest and greatest!