Due to the Covid-19 virus being highly transmittable, railway companies have increased their cleaning and sanitisation methods to ensure a safe environment for passengers. While many railway companies are deploying high-tech cleaning crews, sanitisation routines and touchless systems, Rotterdam Central station recently deployed cleaning robots to assist staff.
Powered by Brain Corp – the company who power the world’s largest fleet of autonomous mobile robots – these cleaning robots follow cleaning routes ‘taught’ to them by staff to ensure areas of the station are clean and hygienic.
According to an International Data Corporation survey, sales of mobile cleaning robots have skyrocketed, seeing 73% of supply chain managers stating that robotics will be key in the future.
We speak to Michel Spruijt, Brain Corp’s European director, to find out more about how these cleaning robots work, the key benefits of using robots for cleaning regimes, and if this is the future for the rail industry.
Frankie Youd (FY): Could you explain how the cleaning robots carry out their tasks?
Michel Spruijt (MS): We work together with the largest manufacturers of cleaning machines and we have adapted their machines into autonomous mobile robots. If machines are dual use, you can still use them in manual mode as you are used to doing, but we added an extra feature that means that it can clean autonomously. That has been achieved by adding sensors, and by giving a ‘brain’ to the machine.
Our software BrainOS is basically the brain for the robots we develop. The way it works is cleaners are the operators, what they do is they clean as they would normally clean but now the robot remembers what they did and that will be saved as a map. This will show a map where you can see what has been taught, and then just with the push of the button on the user interface, you can repeat it. The robot will then take the same track as operator taught it.
We call it teach and repeat and it’s very simple. That was one of the reasons we started with teach and repeat, because we wanted to have the learning curve as low as possible so that it’s easy to teach people how to operate the machines.
We operate with a cloud-based system where all the data that the robots uses to clean is also published on a portal so that the operators and the managers can see what has been cleaned, how much has been cleaned, when it has been cleaned. You will see heat maps where you can see what was originally trained, and what was cleaned.
FY: How do the robots avoid bumping into passengers within the stations?
MS: The robot operates with its sensors when you teach it, it makes a map of the environment, so it knows from a static perspective where everything is. With the software that’s on the machine the robot can see the difference between a static object and a dynamic object, and it will change its behaviour based on what it sees.
For instance, if you have trained a robot then added a dumpster to the environment it will see that it’s a fixed object and will go around it. When it sees a dynamic object the robot will approach, it will wait for the person to move or it will get out of the way and move to its original cleaning path. When the person stands still for a long period of time it will just drive around.
You can also see all of this in the portal, so if you see the same thing happening every day to the robot you have two choices: you retrain the route or move the obstacle.
FY: Where are these robots located in the stations?
MS: The robots in general are used on the commercial platform, not at the train platform because there you have a downward incline and we don’t clean there because we put safety first, we only want to operate when the environment can be safe.
What we normally see is that people are using one machine per site and the reason is that when you normally clean with an operator somebody sits on it, cleans the surface, gets rid of the dirty water, gets clean water, and this is all done by the same person.
When you have a robot you still need a person because you need to put in fresh water, you need to clean it, but it can operate next to the operator meaning while the robot cleans 80% of the area, the operator can take the garbage out, or they can clean high touch surfaces.
What we see a lot is a combination of when the robots are used. Some places use them in the early morning then recharge, then they also use them in the afternoon when there are people around.
FY: What are the key benefits of using cleaning robots?
MS: We always say that the robot is added value to the cleaning team that’s already there, because you can clean more with the same number of staff. Sitting on the scrubber all day is very repetitive work, and it’s also very difficult to always clean the same way.
The difference between a manual and a robot machine is the consistency of cleaning. With a robot is always the same because the robot drives slower, it takes more time to clean. When a human sits on the machine and drives faster, slower, then faster again, the consistency of cleaning is less than when you have a robot cleaning.
All the cleaning with a scrubber or a robot sees 80% of the floor space being straight, so if you can use the time that the person is sitting on it for other tasks you can add more value from the team and you can do way more tasks that the same amount of people did before.
Also, the robot is never sick, or late or not able to do its job so you secure your cleaning.
FY: At present where have these cleaning robots currently been deployed?
MS: The robots have been deployed at Rotterdam train station, as well as others which I cannot name. They are piloting the robots for a longer term. It looks at a couple of different things, it looks at how is the cleaning experience compared to the old situation, how much time can they save for the current team to do other things. I also think they’re running a survey there asking how travellers experience the robot while it’s running.
One of the reasons why we started off with existing machines and existing models and made them autonomous is that people are used to these machines. You already see them everywhere. The big difference now is that there’s not a person sitting on it. That’s one of the things that we’re also looking into, how do travellers perceive robots and what is the best way or time to clean with the robot when there are also people around.
FY: Why do you think that cleaning robots have not been deployed in the rail industry sooner?
MS: I can give you my opinion as to why. It’s an adoptive theme, I think that the first robots were seen as a threat and it has taken time. I think we are getting to the situation today that when Covid-19 hit cleaning became more brand value and very important for everybody versus doing it as much as we can in the background so nobody sees it – cleaning has become more important.
I think in the past robots have been seen as an attack or replacement of staff, people now start to see that it’s not a replacement but it’s an additional thing that can help staff, and also solve labour shortage.
I think it has accelerated in the last year, year and a half. We are everywhere now. We are in malls, retail, train stations, airports, logistics centres, warehouses, hospitals, schools. This is now the new thing, and two years ago when I started people would say: “We tested the robots but it’s not something for us.” We’re now at a stage where people say: “Let’s see what we need to do to make it useful.”
FY: Do you think that robots could be a staple within the industry in the future?
MS: Yes, I think so because it’s not only cleaning robots you can use, for instance another application we have is auto delivery. It works with the same software, but it brings trolleys from point A to point B, or to C to D or backwards.
There’s also the issue of labour shortage, that’s why robots are developed in a lot of cases because we are looking at what repetitive tasks can be done by robots to make the lives of people easier and better.
We want to extend this platform as much as we can because the dream of our CEO is to become the Microsoft of robotics. It started with the industrial robots a long time ago. Everywhere where there is repetitive work to be done that can be replaced by robots in an easy way, that is what the future of robotics will focus on.