“Life changing!” “Blows our minds.” “[M]y favorite purchase in a very long time.” The effusive user testimonials of iRobot’s Roomba robot vacuum cleaners highlight a notable trend in the increasing popularity of automated household cleaning technology. According to InvestorPlace, iRobot Corp.’s U.S. revenues rose “an astounding 46 percent year-over-year” by July 2017 based in part on the growing consumer embrace of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart home-capable appliances. By August, the company’s stock had soared 165 percent over the 12-month period, making Motley Fool’s top 10 list. Wall Street is predictably enthusiastic, inspiring one analyst to declare, “The robot revolution is just getting started.”
In recent years, the AEC industry’s interest in robotics has focused on the automation of manufacturing and construction, with related robotics activity pursued primarily by well-funded academic laboratories and fringe companies. Meanwhile, a quiet transformation is underway in the realm of building maintenance. Compared with design and construction, cleaning is required on a much more frequent basis and, as an undesirable activity, is ideally suited for automation. Interestingly, building maintenance–based robotics has found early champions in residential homeowners—influencing further growth of the technology in the commercial sector. Arguably, robots designed to take over household chores are leading the robot revolution within the built environment.
The first and most obvious maintenance application is floors. Bedford, Mass.–based iRobot launched the Roomba in 2002 after a decade of military research in land mine–removal. In only two years, the company sold 1 million robot vacuums domestically. Though the first Roombas moved randomly—programmed to change direction when their touch-sensitive bumpers came into contact with other objects—newer models utilize a technology called Vision Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, which consists of location-based mapping via infrared cameras (more on related privacy concerns below). As a result, the more recent and sophisticated robots operate in a straight line akin to humans, return to their power base station when their batteries run low, and—once recharged—resume cleaning where they left off.
Roomba is only one of iRobot’s many horizontal plane–based cleaning technologies. In 2005, the company launched its mopping robot named Scooba (now Braava). It followed in 2006 with the Dirt Dog shop vacuum, and in 2007 with the Verro (now Mirra) pool-cleaning robot. Today, iRobot has many competitors within the residential market, including Dyson, Neato, and LG, but the company’s success has also motivated the rise of commercial-grade technologies. For example, Utrecht-based cleaning solutions company Diversey offers industrial vacuuming and scrubbing robots for offices, hotels, retail stores, and airports. "The U.K. launch of the Intellibot machines is another example of how Sealed Air [Diversy's former parent company] is re-imagining the cleaning industry,” said business director Calum Meadows in a 2016 Cleanzine interview. “[T]hese machines can improve the economics of cleaning by significantly boosting productivity, saving up to 80 percent on labor costs and using up to 85 percent less water and chemicals.”
The potential savings in labor and materials have similarly motivated another universal building maintenance application to arise, this time for windows. Professional window-cleaning costs between $2 and $7 per pane, or an average of $266 for an entire residence. In the commercial arena, the job can cost about $20,000 for a 50-story high-rise. Given the general recommendation of two cleanings annually for nonresidential buildings, expenses can add up quickly. Switzerland-based robotics company Serbot offers the Gekko, a façade robot that attaches via suspension cable to a building’s roof. According to the company, the fully-automated Gekko dramatically outpaces hand-based cleaning, can reach surfaces where physical access for humans may be challenging, and “does not look into living or bed rooms.” The robot can clean up to 86,111 square feet (8,000 square meters) of glass per day.
For the residential market, China-based Ecovacs Robotics (which also makes a competitor to the Roomba) offers the Winbot. Unlike the Gekko, Ecovacs' version is entirely suction based—no suspension cable required. Winbot’s magical levitating ability inspired Bloomberg journalist Matthew Kronsberg to call the latest model “a Roomba broken free of gravity.” Users place the Winbot on a vertical plane of glass and the robot takes over, moving via rubber treads while maintaining suction with an internal fan. (In the event of a power outage, the device’s battery allows it to remain attached for 15 minutes.) According to Kronsberg, who tested the $400 unit at home, the Winbot cleans about 3 square feet per minute—not an impressive speed, but potentially attractive for homeowners with expansive, uninterrupted glazing.
Minneapolis venture capital firm Loup Ventures agrees that the residential robot market is thriving. In 2016, sales in domestic robots grew by more than 25 percent compared to the previous year. Loup anticipates yearly double-digit growth in this arena over the next decade. A recent Eco-Business article by T. Balakrishnan—Diversey's chief markets officer and Greater China president—forecasts imminent changes to the entire cleaning industry. He credits the advancement of robots and ubiquitous networking with bringing about a phenomenon called the “Internet of Clean (IoC)”—a platform that integrates maintenance-based machines with sensors, dispensers, and other smart appliances.
Such a broad vision is intriguing but raises fundamental questions. As experienced in the manufacturing and construction sectors, the future of human labor in the cleaning industry could be precarious: Will the current workforce simply be displaced by maintenance-based automation, or will individuals be able to find adequate training and support to move into more meaningful jobs?
Other concernspertain to data security: An eye-opening article in The New York Times article entitled “Your Roomba May Be Mapping Your Home, Collecting Data That Could Be Shared” revealed iRobot’s tentative plans to share information with advertisers—customers’ consent permitting. Security company Trend Micro announced that some 83,000 existing manufacturing robots are vulnerable to hacking based on outdated operating systems and limited virus protection—a risk that could extend to cleaning robots. Such valid concerns reveal an element of uncertainty to an otherwise compelling trend: the burgeoning, robotic-driven disruption to the maintenance of the constructed world.