As retail stores and other public spaces reopen after closures in response to the novel coronavirus crisis, interest in robots for disinfection and cleaning has grown. San Diego-based Brain Corp., which provides autonomy to mobile systems, said it expects demand for cleaning robots to persist.
Brain Corp said usage of robotic floor scrubbers using its BrainOS rose by 18% in the first four months of 2020, in comparison with the same period last year. In April, the year-over-year increase was 24%, reported the company. Cleaning robots typically operate at night when there are no customers in stores, but Brain noted that 68% of the usage increase occurred between 6:00 a.m. and 5:59 p.m.
“We have have robots that clean, deliver items, and scan shelves for inventory,” said Phil Duffy, vice president of innovation at Brain Corp. “We’re working with ISSA, the International Sanitary Supply Association, and manufacturers of cleaning machines. We’re looking at the possibilities for disinfection — not just how to make areas safe, but also what we can do in the whole scope of work, including verifying the level of cleaning.”
Brain Corp keeps functioning during pandemic
Many companies have furloughed employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Brain Corp, which raised $36 million in Series D funding in April, has reallocated resources to continue customer support.
“We’ve been in weekly contact with customers, and we’ve been able to keep up with schedules for anything that was in our pipeline, in terms of units ordered. A lot of people were repurposed to supporting stores,” said Alan Butcher, vice president of client services at Brain Corp. “We’re looking at Q3 and Q4, and while it’s hard to tell how demand will be in the longer term, there has not been a decrease in interest.”
“I monitor our autonomous robots’ performance on a daily basis,” he told The Robot Report. “Other than in shopping malls and schools, we’ve seen a marked increase in utilization. That’s 8,000 hours of work daily, with machines doing 250,000 hours of essential work in the next 30 days.”
Through its “Robot Relief Program,” Brain Corp has donated cleaning robots to essential businesses.
Mobile robot developers should focus on customers
While Brain Corp’s is looking at multiple uses for autonomous robots, its focus on practicality has helped it grow, said Duffy.
“As Steve Cousins, CEO at our partner Savioke, has said, the hardest thing about robotics is finding a use case that has value,” he said. “Alan is providing us use cases that make sense. Our leap of faith was putting a navigation package on floor scrubbers. Since that time, we’ve been pulled into every project by customers for shelf-scanning, delivery, and cart-pulling robots.”
“For example, for scanning pallets, robots need to do two things: identify how many items are left and where are those items,” Duffy said. “From that came our feature-scanning business. With mapping and scanning data, we can put that information in the cloud, and third-party companies can analyze it and send back reports, localizing where items are. That’s a natural extension of customer demand for additional services from autonomous robots.”
Cleaning robots provide data for verification
Since robots using BrainOS artificial intelligence packages run around the clock, what other valuable data can they collect for retailers?
“A lot of our customers’ stores are open 24 hours. With stocking shelves, retail never really closes down, which is why we strove to be the market leader in navigational system design,” said Duffy. “Yes, we have amazing amounts of data — over 1 million hours, one of the largest data sets for public spaces. Because of the COVID-19 situation, customers need to track and manage cleaning coverage.”
“We’re seeing a push to smaller data sets,” Butcher said. “Besides pushing autonomy, there’s also the need for consistency and verification of cleaning. We understand the pressure that store associates are under, and we need to provide them with incremental data on when, where, and for how long areas were cleaned. There are programs to push individual reports, routes, and heat maps to store managers.”
“Multifunction robots that can clean and scan at the same time will come eventually as an IoT [Internet of Things] source of information that’s considered valuable,” said Duffy. “Right now, the industry records everything but doesn’t do anything with the data. We’re very judicious about data.”
Easing deployment of cleaning robots
With customers such as Walmart and record sales last year, Brain Corp has specialized in robots for retail, but it is aware of interest in cleaning robots for other spaces. First, robots have to be easy to deploy and require minimal support.
“Robots in public spaces are exactly where the warehouse space was in the early days of AGVs [automated guided vehicles],” said Duffy. “People ask if they’re safe, if they will solve their problems, and if there’s room for them alongside human workers and customers. At MODEX, it was clear to everyone that they’re safe. With COVID-19, there is an understanding that cleaning robots and consistency are important to certain retailers that are considered essential.”
“With our Brain Matters development program, we’re working with customers to identify critical components for support and how we can help solve some of those,” he said. “We are looking at other avenues like disinfection in the longer term.”
“One of the programs is an accelerated ‘out-of-the-box’ experience,” added Butcher. “We’re moving toward a self-deployable unit with a ‘drop and play’ concept. Currently, deployment of our robots is relatively simple. We’re looking at interactive user interfaces and training videos to make it even easier to set up markers, train a map, and pick consecutive routes.”
“Rather than send our people to stores, we want to keep down the amount of people traveling while still providing training,” Duffy said. “Safety is a priority for our customers and staff as we accelerate levels of cleaning and performance.”
Partnering for support
In addition to easing setup of its cleaning robots, Brain Corp has been working to improve remote support.
“Already last year, we had been looking at how to simplify deployment and were stationing resources around the country,” said Butcher. “One of the biggest costs is travel, and we instituted a plan last year to work with partner companies. It was a cost-control measure last year, and now, it’s a COVID-19 measure. Our work with janitorial staff was already in place and aligned with virus restrictions.”
“We have two categories of partner companies,” he explained. “The first are companies like Bell and Howell, which already provide skilled technicians to Best Buy. We work with them to hire technicians to work for us on a local basis.”
“We’re also working with companies to sell, deploy, and service robots under a robotics-as-a-service [RaaS] model,” Butcher said. “They’re putting cleaning robots on sites and are promoting a broader distribution of robots.”
From cleaning robots to logistics
Brain Corp is watching other markets for autonomous mobile robots. Earlier this year, the company announced that it had licensed its BrainOS to partners including Dane Technologies and UniCarriers Americas.
“For indoor logistics, retailers need all the help they can get with restocking,” said Duffy. “We don’t want to rush things without doing analyses of customers, environments, and [effects of] the pandemic. There is also a lot of interest with Savioke about robots for hospitals.”
“We are seeing trends in the delivery space,” he said. “Some companies, such as OTTO, 6 River Systems, Seegrid, and Locus, have very mature systems, but they don’t have the large volumes that Brain Corp has. The closest is MiR, which has 4,000 to 5,000 units; we’re at 10,000 units.”
“All of them operate in dusty warehouses, but we’re the only one in public spaces,” Duffy said. “There are other potential competitors like Blubotics, but they’re a lot smaller. The market for developers of autonomy software is at an early stage.”
Multifunction robots versus a multivendor stack
Brain Corp has provided autonomy AI to multiple machines, including cleaning robots, but it resisted the temptation to try to create one that can do everything, said Duffy. Both hardware and software will diversify as needed, he said.
“We’ve learned the lesson that if you try to combine physical features, neither works well,” Duffy said. “You can’t combine an iron and a cellphone. We leave the functional expertise for how to tow goods or do delivery to big companies that have been doing this for years.”
“We don’t make autonomous scrubbers; we make scrubbers autonomous,” said Butcher. “For the delivery robot, we worked with a customer. Once we were able to pilot a proof of concept, we turned the project over to OEMs. We have a good intellectual partnership with our customers.”
“The future is a multivendor technology stack,” Duffy said. “If major robotics companies that specialize in warehouses want to go outside of closed environments, we’d be willing to work with them. We’re excited to see where the market for fully automated mobile robots will go.”