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Walmart’s latest hire: Robotic janitors that clean floors and collect data

The Auto-C, powered by BrainOS, joins Walmarts technology ecosystem. ((Photo courtesy of Walmart/Brain Corp)

Walmart’s latest custodial tool may look like a mini Zamboni, but it’s more like a Roomba, the robotic sweeper sliding across floors worldwide.

This week, the big-box retailer announced plans to place 360 autonomous robots inside Walmarts across the country by the end of January.

Their job: scrubbing the store’s expansive aisles and collecting data in the process.

The robot custodians are powered by Brain Corp, a San Diego-based technology company that has partnered with Walmart. The retailer already has a fleet of more than 100 of the devices operating inside its stores.

“We’re excited to work with Brain Corp in supporting our retail operations and providing our associates with a safe and reliable technology,” John Crecelius, Walmart’s vice president of central operations, said in a statement online. “BrainOS is a powerful tool in helping our associates complete repetitive tasks so they can focus on other tasks within role and spend more time serving customers.”

Inside the futuristic restaurant where a robot has replaced the bartender

The floor scrubbers use sensors that can perceive the surrounding environment. Before the scrubbers can be set free, a Walmart employee is required for an initial “training ride” that creates a map of different routes the machine can follow inside the store, the company said. Once the robot is in use, the machine can scan its surroundings for people and obstacles, the company said, noting that the machines can operate in crowded environments.

The robots look fairly one-dimensional in nature, but their onboard sensors allow them to collect useful analytical data, the company said. The data may prove useful, providing the company with information about peak shopping hours or “which shelves are empty,” as a Walmart spokesman told NBC News.

In autonomous mode, the scrubber tops out at 2 mph, which is about 1 mph slower than walking speed for the average adult. But blazing speed is hardly the point, Alan Smith, a Walmart assistant manager, said in a video produced by the company.

Smith said that the machines — which weigh about 620 pounds each — include yellow “safety guards” that deter shoppers from hopping onboard for a slow-moving joyride that can last up to four hours. Assuming it’s free of customer tampering, a flashing yellow light, electronic beeping and up to 165 pounds of brush pad pressure ensue.

“The two hours that somebody would have had to walk behind the scrubber is now two hours that they can be doing something else in the store,” Smith added.

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Automation will allow workers to perform new tasks in some industries, but it won’t stop millions of people from needing to switch occupations or upgrade their skills in the coming years, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report released last year.

The report estimates that as many as 800 million people may lose their jobs to robots by 2030. Some of those jobs sound a lot like cleaning floors at Walmart.

“Activities most susceptible to automation include physical ones in predictable environments, such as operating machinery and preparing fast food,” the report states. “Collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines.”