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Meet the Robot Cleaner
December 1, 2014   
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Sebastian Jarocki, technical manager of a project to develop an environmentally friendly cleaning robot, talks to Karolina Olszewska.

The cleaning robot is being built by the Robotics Inventions company and a team of researchers from the Institute of Electronic Systems at the Warsaw University of Technology. What’s so special about this project?

The device will be able to autonomously clean medium-sized and large industrial spaces, offices, conference rooms as well as halls in hotels, hospitals and schools. First, it will apply a detergent under pressure, then it will remove the dirt and dry the surface. We are working on each of these stages in order to make them as efficient as possible during the whole cleaning process. At the same time, we want the process to be as cheap as possible. Nowadays, large, flat surfaces are cleaned with classical cleaning machines operated by human operators. A device that works on its own saves time, energy, water and cleaning agents. And that is why our product is better than others.

The robot comes with a docking-service station whose main purpose is to collect and filter dirty water and charge the batteries.

A demonstration version of the device makes it possible to clean surfaces that do not absorb water. Sensors capable of telling the difference between different floor types are designed to protect the surface from being sprinkled with water, especially in the case of floor carpeting. However, the idea of the project is that the next stage of work on the robot will involve equipping it with a dry cleaning module for carpeting and rugs.

What’s the point of building such a machine? After all, people have been doing such work successfully for years?

Take underground or multi-level aboveground car parking garages, for instance. These are often poorly lit and it’s very cold inside. But they need to be cleaned. The cleaning is usually done when the lot is empty, which means preferably at night. Not to mention the fact that the working conditions are unhealthy for people because there’s usually a high concentration of fumes and the dirt requires the use of strong detergents.

I must emphasize that our project does not aim to eliminate people from the cleaning business. The machine is designed to be a partner for cleaning crews as it is able to clean large spaces and is far more efficient than humans. Moreover, it can work continuously with no vacations or lunch breaks, regardless of the time of day. During this time, the cleaning staff can wipe off dust, clean window sills and smaller rooms where a single all-purpose robot cannot enter—to clean stairs, for example. People should do less strenuous and more responsible kind of work that requires precision or an individual approach.

Who are the potential buyers of such machines?

The robot is an excellent choice for companies providing cleaning services. But there are also institutions that can use it for their own purposes, for example hospitals and medical clinics. After all they have their own cleaning staff for whom such a device could save the day. This also applies to hotels. Our robot does not need to be handled by a human operator; it only needs to be supervised. It can be moved easily and once it enters industrial production its dimensions can be adapted to customer requirements. We take into account practical limitations such as door width and elevator size. The robot will be equipped with a special joystick resembling those used in PlayStation consoles. We will use this joystick to take the robot down to the ground floor, run it up a ramp and then put it into a small delivery van.

What about the docking station that comes with the robot?

This is a kind of panel connected to a source of power, water and the sewer system. Our solution does not require any new infrastructure. The station can have wheels for transport, but during normal use it will remain stationed in a utility room.

The robot can work nonstop for about four hours, which is half a shift in terms of how long employees work. This means it doesn’t need large batteries. Otherwise the robot would be very heavy and not mobile enough.

What is the key innovative feature that distinguishes your robot from other cleaning machines?

Its biggest advantage is its autonomy resulting from a set of algorithms responsible for it working independently, safely and efficiently. Human intervention is reduced to the minimum. The operator does not need to know the details of how the device works; he only needs to turn it on. This skill is comparable to that required for operating fork-lift trucks in large supermarkets. The user has to transport the machine to the desired hall or specific floor. Then, he must determine the type of cleaning by programming the robot like you program a washing machine. The machine will recognize the space in which it is located, analyze the surface and type of dirt and select the optimum cleaning mode. Often, a person operating a classical cleaning machine doesn’t even give a thought to whether a stain that they want to remove requires more or less detergent or different cleaning parameters. Usually, most parameters are set to the maximum so that the efficiency is maximized. This leads to more power and cleaning agents being used than is necessary.

Which part of work on the project is being done by Robotics Inventions and what is the Warsaw University of Technology responsible for?

Robotics Inventions is the leader of the consortium and will be responsible for going commercial with the results of the project. The researchers working on the project are developing the mechanical design of the robot—the visible and tangible part. They are responsible for its cleaning efficiency. They are integrating the mechanics, electronics and the computer system.

The Institute of Electronic Systems at the Warsaw University of Technology specializes in sensorics. The robot’s intelligence is closely linked with the sensors, which respond to signals from the outside world. Most of the sensors, which cannot be purchased on the market, are being developed by a nine-strong team of engineers from the Warsaw University of Technology. It is necessary to select the appropriate, complementary short- and long-range sensory systems that will give clear feedback about the surrounding world to the robot.

As the technical manager of the project, I am responsible for running the project, allocating tasks, creating the design outline, and for the overall functionality of the robot. Anna Suchodolska-Jaszczołt is formally the project manager. Robotics Inventions employs seven people working on the project—mechanical engineers, electronics engineers and software engineers. The project presents many engineering challenges. One of these is mapping areas in which the robot is located, which means building a database of stationary and mobile obstacles. Another challenge is location, in other words object-orientation. A robot has to locate itself correctly on the map, use the navigation system and then select the optimum path to move around a particular area and to take this path.

Ordinary users probably do not realize how difficult it is for a robot to move around an unknown space filled with a variety of fixed and moving obstacles. It has to define danger zones and out-of-bounds areas excluded from cleaning. All this has to be done in real time while cleaning. We equip the robot with the ability to recognize the surface along which it moves as well as with the ability to select the appropriate cleaning mode, identify the type of dirt, dose out the detergent on its own and set the intensity of cleaning. The robot will even be able to decide whether a given site requires additional cleaning if the dirt turns out to be particularly difficult to deal with.

Going commercial with the robot will not be easy. You will have to beat the competition.

The situation is not so bad. There are few robots out there for cleaning industrial surfaces that do not have to be handled by a human operator. There are two foreign designs that are already at the stage of being put out on the market. However, neither is equipped with a self-cleaning docking station, like our robot. Thanks to this docking station, our robot, after detecting the absence of a detergent or water or an overflow in the dirty water container, will be able to dock at the station, replace the fluids and recharge its batteries. Everything will be in line with environmental protection requirements. The station is capable of treating and recycling dirty water. Therefore we use less water and reduce the discharge into the sewerage system to the minimum. That’s a big advantage over other devices of this kind.

One of the rival products originating from the U.S. market is a heavy robot (that weighs around 250 kg together with the batteries) used for wet cleaning. Due to its weight it can only work in designated locations. This robot is difficult to transport. It also carries a steep price tag, possibly too steep for potential users in Poland.

The other product, designed in Europe, is a much smaller and easy-to-move robot. However, it only works well on surfaces with regular shapes.

Both these products are based on short-range sensors. And because of this they cannot effectively create maps of their surroundings. They bypass obstacles they encounter in a random manner.

How much will your project cost?

Its total cost is more than zl.5 million. We got more than zl.3 million in co-financing from the National Center for Research and Development under the Demonstrator+ program. Robotics Inventions is contributing more than zl.2 million. The Warsaw University of Technology as a research institution does not contribute financially to the project.
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