Get Ready: Floor Care Robots Are Coming to An Airport Near You was published for client AFFLINK. Gretchen Friedrich is a thought leader for the professional cleaning industry.
Cleaning and maintaining floors in most airports around the country is a 24/7 job. And it can be a very costly job at that.
Floorcare takes time. Depending on the type of floor machine used, one worker could spend anywhere from three minutes to nearly 50 minutes cleaning 1,000 square feet of floor space. And that’s assuming there are no people or obstacles in the area being cleaned.
In an airport the size of JFK, which measures approximately 8,124 square miles, it would take dozens of workers to clean all the floors in the facility every day. Plus, let us not forget that there are people and impediments in the airport that can significantly slow down the cleaning process.
This is why airport managers may be particularly interested in the new generation of robotic floor machines introduced by several manufacturers in the professional cleaning industry.
When robotic floor machines were first introduced, in the 1990s, they were costly and had
several limitations. Today, prices have come down while technological improvements have gone up—a lot. Today’s machines are built on very advanced software that makes use of artificial intelligence. Not only can the machine learn how and where to clean but it can also communicate with airport administrators and custodial workers via the cloud—something that was likely only a pipedream in some engineer’s mind in the 1990s.
Further, this software connects with various sensors and navigational systems, making the floor care robots safer to use, especially when operated in crowded areas such as airports. And teaching these machines has never been easier. Often it can all be carried out on a smartphone, something else that was but a pipedream in the early 1990s.
Once the machine has been taught what to do and where to clean, it can provide airport administrators and cleaning contractors with a large amount of invaluable data. For example, it can provide weekly “proof” reports, indicating how much floor area was cleaned, which areas were cleaned, and when, as well as alert administrators to when the machine needs servicing. These benefits far outstrip what their predecessors could do.
Clearing Up Confusion
Before we go further in our discussion, we should clarify and understand a few things about these devices. First, what do we call them? One major floor machine manufacturer calls them “autonomous mobile robots.”
Other companies have settled on the name “robotic auto scrubbers” or “robotic floor machines.” These names appear to be gaining popularity.
One reason the “autonomous” name is fading is that these machines are not totally autonomous. They still depend on an operator to fill and empty the machine, monitor and manage the machine as it operates even if at a distance, and move it to a recharging station when needed. Although fully autonomous machines may be available down the road, for now “robotic” seems to be the most accurate term. For now, we just call them floor care robots.
The second question we need to address is, will these machines reduce the number of cleaning workers needed to clean the airport? In some cases, the answer is yes. However, many experts in the professional cleaning industry say they have not seen this happen.
Instead, what appears to be happening is that these machines are freeing up cleaning workers, allowing them to perform other cleaning tasks that were previously pushed aside due to lack of time.
Further, according to Holly Borrego, senior director of cleaning services of C&W Services of Chicago, custodial unions have been overall receptive to robotic floor machines, and no union employees, she says, have come forward with concerns about losing their jobs due to robotic machines. “They have even created jobs. Robotics offer employees higher-skilled positions within an organization, such as robot fleet management.” Many custodial workers view such positions as an opportunity for career advancement.
Teaching Workers How to Use Floor Care Robots
Most of the manufacturers of robotic floor robotic machines are large companies that have traditionally turned to their distributors to teach users how to operate these machines. Employee training, whether for machines, tools, or chemicals, has always been one of the most valuable things distributors bring to the table. Further, when it comes to selecting robotic floor machines, they can help eliminate “trial and error” purchasing. The right machines are selected from the start, which can be a significant cost and time savings.
“I think distributors will become ‘robot experts’ in the coming years,” says Mike Sawchuk, a cleaning consultant that works primarily with cleaning contractors. “The manufacturer makes the machines. But it is the distributor that will show cleaning workers all that the machine can do and how to make it happen.”
Making It Happen
One of the first airports in the country to use robotic scrubbers was Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT). At PIT, a map of the area to be cleaned is fed into the machine’s software. A custodial worker takes the machine to that area and presses the start button. From there, the machine is on its way to clean the entire area.
A major challenge to floorcare is navigating around impediments. Sensors and onboard cameras on the machine can detect when people or obstacles are in its path. If so, the machine stops immediately. At this point, a worker may be alerted to the situation and wait for instructions, or the machine may resume operation once the obstacle – or people – are out of the cleaning path.
Further aiding in productivity, these machines are designed to operate for about six hours before they need to be recharged. During that time, large floor areas can be thoroughly cleaned, all without the need for an operator.
Key Benefits of Floor Care Robots
We have covered quite a bit of territory here, pointing out what robotic floor robotic machines are, how they work, and how they are used. However, for airport administrators and the contract cleaners in charge of airport maintenance, here are the key benefits of robotic machines:
Not worker dependent. The professional cleaning industry has long been known as having an exceedingly high worker turnover. Worse, right now, many employers say they are having considerable difficulty finding workers. Once a robotic floor machine has been taught where and what to clean, one operator can oversee a fleet of machines. This can help administrators and contractors deal with turnover and worker shortages.
Consistency. Cleaning consistency is also a major issue in the professional cleaning industry. Because it is so labor dependent, even when workers are well trained, cleaning thoroughness and effectiveness can vary. With robotic floor machines, this inconsistency is eliminated. The machines clean floors effectively each and every time.
Enhanced productivity. With the machine performing one of the most tedious and timely cleaning tasks, custodial workers are free to perform other duties. More cleaning tasks get completed and more frequently.
This last point may be one of the most important benefits. Especially now, in a post-COVID environment, many airport administrators have instructed their cleaning crews to spend more time maintaining restrooms, food service areas, and high-touch areas. Robotic floor machines give them the time to do this, helping to keep airports healthier as well as cleaner.
Gretchen Friedrich is a Manager, Marketing at AFFLINK based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. AFFLINK is a distributor-membership organization with more than 300 members throughout the United States. They partner with more than 200 manufacturers, many of which make robotic floor machines.