Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Autonomous mobile robots doing the dirty work

Cleaning robot usage is skyrocketing thanks to newly germ-conscious consumers.

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Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are having a big moment during the pandemic, and the drive to cleanliness is a big part of it. Usage of cleaning robots is skyrocketing as automation technologies have been deployed in office and retail environments to sanitize surfaces for a newly germ-conscious public.

How big is the growth? By anecdotal measures, it's massive. A company called Brain Corp, which provides autonomous solutions that enable OEMs and Robotics Startups to turn manually driven products into autonomous machines, recently finalized 2020 usage data showing remarkable growth over the last year, including 4x growth of the number of BrainOS-powered robots and 6x growth in total square footage covered autonomously by BrainOS robots globally.

"During the last year, we've seen shoppers' expectations for enhanced cleanliness continue to rise," Josh Baylin, Senior Director of Strategy for Brain Corp, told me in response to the rise in popularity of AMRs for cleaning. "Stores not only need to be clean, they need to show customers that they are actively cleaning. This "proof of work" has become increasingly important, as has the ability for stores to measure their cleaning performance. If a retailer uses an AMR, they are able to track the robot's operations and get near real-time data that shows the job is getting done."

Some of the increased usage can be attributed to growing customer approval of robots and autonomous cleaning.

"We've also seen retailers increasingly run AMRs during daytime business hours," says Baylin. "Shoppers appreciate that they can see the floors being cleaned in front of them, and it frees staff to work on higher-value tasks.  We're seeing our customers embrace automation and use their AMRs to the fullest extent possible. We've seen this through a spike in daytime usage, as well as an increase in general usage across the board. It's not just an increase in the number of deployed robots, it's also how much those robots are being utilized."

Brain Corp, which is boasting new deployments with Sam's Club and Schnucks, is being joined in an increasingly competitive field of cleaning and disinfecting AMRs from companies like Fetch Robotics, which offers flexible autonomous mobile robots traditionally for logistics and inventory applications, and UVD Robots.

"We expect the AMR industry will continue to grow at a rapid pace," Baylin tells me. "Businesses are seeing the benefits of using robotic automation to tackle routine tasks and free up their staff to handle more important things, such as helping shoppers. Businesses have also become more comfortable with BrainOS-powered AMRs and once they see how efficient an AMR can be, many look to expand their fleet and increase their usage. We also work with customers on future feature requests and integrations that will continue to make our technology more and more useful over time. Enhanced levels of cleaning, increased data collection and reporting, the development of new applications for robots -- these innovations will lead to increased deployment and usage, both within retail and grocery as well as in other sectors."

One of the biggest takeaways is just how dispersed the customer base is becoming for AMRs. What was once a narrow target seems to be expanding rapidly during the pandemic, which is excellent news for the automation sector.

"There are still tremendous growth opportunities for AMRs in all public-facing commercial sectors. Brain Corp is helping onboard new customers across retail, grocery, malls, education, healthcare, airports, and warehouses."