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The New Future: What Role Does Smart Cleaning Play?

Innovative healthcare solutions to protect the next generations.

by Lewis Ho

In response to the easing of travel restrictions worldwide, many healthcare experts and policymakers over the world seek innovative solutions to serve as gatekeepers of public health and safety whilst ensuring businesses can thrive in the new normal and meet heightened customer demands for cleanliness, assurance, and sustainability.

Digitalisation efforts appear more often in our daily life. For example, implementing IoT mechanisms to sanitise workspaces, public facilities, mass transportation, and other establishments assembled with multiple contact points.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend amongst healthcare technology vendors to introduce a slew of new digital tools that sterilise more effectively is becoming prevalent.

Innovative Cleaning on the Rise

With people becoming more aware of cleanliness, manual disinfecting of carpets, floors, and desks are no longer the best option to maintain top-notch health and safety, many have taken to thorough manual cleaning or disinfection technology. After all, strict COVID-19 measures have strong-armed commercial space operators into constraining close human contact and listening to social distancing norms.

Digital out of home arrangements spurred on by the global pandemic has permanently changed the way people operate. The public has become more accustomed to spending their time at home in the last two years. The possibility of returning to their schools and workplaces, travelling, and enjoying once-bustling entertainment venues has brought one factor to the forefront of their minds – hygiene.

Therein lies the accelerated global demand for robotics-driven cleaning and disinfection technology, also simplified as ‘smart cleaning’. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), robotics cleaning technology such as vacuum cleaning and disinfection functions have been widely adopted in the last several years. It is estimated that 31 million household robots were sold between 2016 – 2019, out of which 96 per cent were vacuum and floor sterilising robots.

Specifically, in the Asia-Pacific region, the cleaning robot market has shown incredible potential – reports like the HIMSS Asia Pacific digital heath survey have projected an annual market growth rate of 32.9 per cent between 2020 to 2026. Furthermore, the driving forces behind such predictions are high disposable income countries like Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Many of them have invested considerable amounts in robotic research and development, leading to more advanced tools and resources being dedicated to pandemic protection. The hope is that these technologies can also support these cities within the region in mitigating future outbreaks and become a big part of upcoming public health and safety projects.

Let’s look at a few examples:

    • Operating in a densely populated metropolis as Hong Kong has resulted in many of the city’s subway carriages encompassing masses into tiny, confined spaces. At a time when distance is not only encouraged but enforced, such transportation methods become a host for viral bacteria. To protect and tackle community spread infections, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) rolled out a professional automated Vapourised Hydrogen Peroxide (VHP) robot to disinfect various contact points within stations and trains.
    • Heralded as one of Asia Pacific’s top innovation hubs, Singapore is reported to have the second-highest robot density in the world. Their national robotics programme has focused on developing and leveraging robots across various industries, most notably healthcare. During the coronavirus outbreak, the city-state deployed robotic solutions to reinforce social distancing within national parks and other public venues.
    • Moving faster than other regions, Japan’s progress in robotics technology has been remarkable. In attempts to combat the declining workforce and age gap, the advances they made in this sub-sector of technology significantly aided them in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Several restaurants and hotels leveraged customer service and sterilisation robots to serve and chat with diners, visitors, locals and assist the cleaning staff.
    • Corporates in South Korea have been well established in the cleaning robotics market; however, the novel coronavirus amplified the need for enterprises to reduce human contact amid the rising hygiene concerns. Industry leaders programmed detection methods and AI technology within robots to help determine passerby temperatures, identify social gatherings, and stress other distancing measures.

Considerations of the Future

It is safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has forcefully disrupted labour and social trends; the transition to working or schooling from home is a prime example – individuals are spending considerably less time in public spaces and are indulging in new forms of entertainment to avoid exposure to the virus.

A survey conducted by Ipsos and Avalon SteriTech early this year assessed 2,100 Asians from Hong Kong and Singapore and found that 76 per cent of respondents spent less time visiting local leisure entertainment venues due to fears of transmission. Further research also shows that despite specific COVID guidelines for workplaces, three out of four Asians still feel a moderate to high risk of germs in an office building.

Nevertheless, given the gradual opening of markets, we must reinstate public confidence towards recreational and shared venues. A practical solution to do so is adopting robotic technologies into daily routines and businesses. Smart cleaning systems provide an elevated assurance that the public expects at present; note that the above-mentioned survey also shared that 86 per cent of Asian respondents felt confident enough to visit common areas if high-end disinfection methods were deployed. All in all, Asian consumers have raised their expectations for comprehensive cleaning in public spaces.

Hence, the sight of many cleaning robots silently cleaning several shopping malls, offices, hotels, and transportation networks is becoming more common. Many of these innovative mechanisms perform cleaning tasks during less busy hours of the day or, in some instances, during closed hours, and also greet customers and provide relevant disinfection at the high traffic areas throughout the day. Such advanced arrangements will offer much-needed confidence to incoming shoppers, commuters, and guests alike.

Experts believe that such non-contact measures could also extend to air travel. With the possibility of automated solution deployment, the golden age of travel may finally arrive! Consider Pittsburgh International Airport, a pioneer within US airports, leveraging autonomous robots designed with UV technology for cleaning. Within Asian counterparts, Hong Kong International Airport has also deployed several self-driving robots with UV light and air sterilisers that perform round-the-clock sanitisation.

Smart Cleaning Concepts: Vision for the Future

Preparing for the future of cleaning, collaborative robots, or “cobots” are starting to emerge in the market. In fact, the industry that stands to make the most significant gain from cobotics is commercial cleaning and facility management. Not only are they battling with high turnover rates, but the nature of work is incredibly tedious, repetitive, and often mundane.

Nonetheless, when a clear strategy for how the cobots can assist within operations is developed, such issues can be corrected. Consider vacuuming and disinfection, tasks typically perceived as time-consuming and resource-draining can now be assigned to cobots, freeing up the cleaning staff’s time for more high-value engagements.

Because these novel cobots differ from traditional robotic solutions, the human workforce’s interactions with them become ameliorated. Additionally, when the mental and physical health of the workforce is overloaded, cobots can step in and take on extra responsibilities to ensure that all obligations are met, and employees are not exhausted or exposed to skin-irritating chemicals far more than needed.

To develop the most effective and precise solutions, different manufacturers in the industry are trying to create robots that emulate sterilisation duties in a non-excessive and eco-friendly manner. To cite specifics, features of existing disinfection robots include responsible spraying mechanisms with unique nozzle and technologies that generate the smallest possible disinfectant participles and reduce surfactant use by 80 per cent.

While such practices may target environmental issues at a micro level, it brings enterprises closer to overarching corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals, and even the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations, whereby the balance between public safety exercises and the future of the planet is attained.

From an organisational outlook, incorporating an automated cleaning programme not only enhances its brand image but also to pronounced benefits, such as increased consistency, reliability, and efficacy, cobots create associations of higher health and safety standards. At a time when guests, travellers, and visitors are anticipating all goods and services to exhibit stringent precaution without disrupting customer service experiences, implementation of automated technology can lend the advantage.

Addressing the Challenges Ahead

In this post-pandemic era, the need to meet enhanced cleanliness demands from consumers and businesses will remain the same, if not heightened. It requires facility management corporations to explore alternative and eco-friendly solutions like AI and cobotic technology.

However, some limitations stand in the way. Many establishments have quickly learned that whilst AI and robots have their advantages, they cannot complete tasks within cold and wet weather conditions, answer niche questions, and perform sterilisation on all spaces and areas.

Also, certain types of robotic automation necessitate regular maintenance, expert observation, and nurturing to keep the systems afloat. A known fact is that present-day technology requires constant upgrading and data feeding to ensure that it can keep up. Therefore, many businesses implementing this technology hire dedicated, skilled teams that can monitor the performance and collect data, which propels automation technology to its peak performance.

That is why many manufacturers and specialists insist on the hybrid approach; it stipulates robots and staff to work in tandem. When companies implement robotic and automated technology parallel to operational staff and a dedicated ‘tech team’, they can sustain organisational growth in the long term.

For the most part, cobotic technology addresses large scale concerns; they provide better interactions within teams – with cleaning tasks delegated amongst them, skills are used in the best way possible. Equally, they are a much more sustainable cleaning method, and they have features that prevent the overuse of chemicals. In addition, many of the issues stated apply to specific automation technology, and the systems available on the market today correct such obstacles by directly targeting the sole purpose it is employed for.

AI in Retrospect

As highlighted earlier, Asia Pacific is the front runner in the cleaning robotics industry, with projections of the highest growth rate in the world.

In Hong Kong, cleaning and disinfection robots purvey the much-needed confidence to the general public after the global pandemic had fragmented it. >Many of the city’s hospitals, malls, and airports leverage smart cleaning to reassure people of the region’s commitment to keeping its citizens safe and adopting long-term systems that diligently assist cleaning staff. Not to mention, many notable areas within Asia have also welcomed digitalisation and robotic advancement as it serves as a gatekeeper against future outbreaks.

When the question of the future for cleaning arises, these robots are undoubtedly paving the way. To underscore previous points, unlike conventional robotic solutions, smart cleaning technology is designed to carry out disinfection protocols in a consistent, effective, and sustainable fashion that decreases the exaggerated use of chemicals and human exposure to them.

With all things considered, business corporations must endeavour to find alternative solutions that comply with enhanced cleanliness demands from consumers and businesses, especially during unprecedented changes. Simply channelling human resources to cleaning and disinfection without regard to the volume of surfactants used is not a long-term solution. With increasing socio-economic pressures to adopt more sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions, our approach towards sterilisation needs momentum that encourages robotic technologies and systems to support a greener way of living.

In this current transition from the new normal to the new future, we must ensure that the proper steps are being taken to follow public safety protocols whilst safeguarding our future and the planet!


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About the Author 

Lewis Ho is the Chief Executive Officer of Avalon SteriTech, a global start-up based in Hong Kong, which strives to provide next-generation cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation technology infrastructure for public spaces. The company is an industry leader in public health infrastructure and protection, adapting professional medical knowledge, and leading market insights to deliver customised solutions that address unmet public health needs.