Cleaning robots are in vogue with COVID-19

SoftBank's Whiz vacuum robot works in commercial settings and runs the BrainOS from Brain Corp. COVID-19 has made a variety of cleaning robots much more popular. (SoftBank)

Brain Corp. of San Diego, an AI company, recently reported a 24% increase in BrainOS-powered autonomous robot usage in the second quarter amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The BrainOS works in a number of robot models for floor scrubbers, vacuum sweepers, in-store delivery tugs and shelf scanners.  More than 10,000 are deployed worldwide in groceries, malls, airports, hospitals and other public places.

Brain Corp. is funded by Qualcomm Ventures and SoftBank Vision Fund. SoftBank Robotics makes the Whiz, an automated vacuum sweeper with Whiz Connect software for providing data analytics to confirm its performance and improve its effectiveness.  BrainOS is also used in robots from Tennant, Minuteman, Karcher and more. 

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With the 24% increase in usage, Brain Corp. also noticed a median daily use increase of 20% to 2.58 hours, with much of the cleaning done during daytime hours instead of overnight.  Customers are apparently put to ease when they see cleaning happening, according to one Brain Corp. sales executive.

Fierce Electronics spoke to Brain Corp.’s Jean-Baptist Passot about the increased use of robots during the pandemic.   He is vice president of platform and AI.  

FE:  How much are your autonomous cleaning robots in demand lately?

Passot: For our existing end-customers, we observed a usage increase for essential businesses that were open. Among retailers in US locations, the usage rose by 13.8% during Q1 of 2020, compared to the same period last year, and jumped by 24% during Q2 of 2020.  We also observed an increase in daytime usage.  Demand for robots has also increased and our partners are seeing that in their pipelines. We believe that this pandemic will have a material impact in accelerating interest and adoption of robots.

FE:  How are companies being helped?

Passot:  Overall, Brain-powered robots deliver over 10,000 autonomous hours of work each day. That’s allowing employees whose workload shot up to focus on the tasks that only humans can do – clean high-contact surfaces, spend more time with customers, help with customer flow, and also take a much-needed break.

FE: What have you learned amid the rush to the robotics technology?

Passot: Our philosophy has always been that robots should be designed to assist humans, not replace them. We also believe robots should require little expertise to deploy and use. The rush, increase in usage, and increase in demand has reinforced these assumptions and validated our user-centric approach. Deploying a BrainOS powered robot does not require complex tools or lengthy training. Virtually, everyone can deploy or make changes to the behavior, it does not require technical knowledge, you can just train the robot by manually operating it and retrain it whenever needed. 

If you think back to the beginning of the pandemic, grocery stores and big-box retailers were changing how they operated on what seemed like a daily basis. That includes enter-only, exit-only doors.  Controlling flow: aisles changed to one-way only, new lines to check out.  Different operating hours so they could restock everything and clean overnight. This meant the robots had to be retrained often, sometimes daily. 

Since they also operate in manual mode, you could have easily seen stores choose to use the machines that way or let the machine sit if they were too hard to retrain. Instead, usage went up.  Our simple “teach and repeat” approach meant the end-users could quickly and easily adapt the robot to the changing operating conditions. This delivered the work hours they needed to get all the tasks done. It was great for our teams to see this validation of our design and our hard work, and it was exciting to see how the technology we built could help during these unprecedented times.

Jean-Baptist Passot will appear with other panelists during Fierce AI Week on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. EST in the engineering AI track.  The online event is free. An agenda and registration are online.  

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