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Robot cleaners are coming, this time to wipe up your coronavirus germs

Hospitals and airports need to keep things clean. People need to stay away from one another. Enter the scramble for cleaning robots.

Hospitals and retailers are turning to automated cleaning robots to keep spaces clean and workers at a safe distance during the pandemic. (Erick M. Ramos for The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — Every day at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, custodial teams wheel two boxy robots down the halls from one patient room to the next, using ultraviolet light to disinfect them from the coronavirus and bacteria.

All covid-19 patient rooms and a few break rooms — about 30 spaces in total — of the San Diego County-based hospital get disinfected each day by the robots, a marvel to Neil Mandalia, the environmental services director. He asked administrators in the early days of the pandemic if he could spend $250,000 on two robots that are capable of disinfecting an operating room in 12 minutes, something that takes a worker 90 minutes. In patient rooms, the mobile lights disinfect more thoroughly than most humans.

“On our discharge, we would need to clean the walls, the ceilings, every inch of the baseboard, everywhere a pathogen could live. That’s not necessarily being done in every room every time,” he said. “But a robot does do that.”

The hospital’s purchase of the UV robots underscores how the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the drive toward automation across the U.S. economy — this time, not just with the goal of having machines more efficiently do the work of humans but also eradicating germs and limiting human contact due to the public health threat.

The trend is being most strongly felt in airports, stadiums and public transportation, where authorities are snapping up new technologies aimed at automating cleaning, from floor scrubbers to disinfecting drones. That poses long-term risks to the low-wage workers who usually do janitorial work.

Already, working-class people face heightened risks of losing their jobs to automation throughout the economy during deep recessions as companies seek ways to save on costs.

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“Labor market research especially has been showing over the last three recessions that automation constantly happens, but it’s cyclical,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It doesn’t occur only at a steady gradual pace. It deploys in bursts.”

In a Brookings Economics Studies report, researchers found 88 percent of job loss in routine occupations, such as some clerical or manufacturing work, occurs within 12 months of a recession — and much of that results from an increase in automation. Meanwhile, seven months after the coronavirus began spreading in the United States, 29 million people are receiving unemployment compensation.

The technology deployed can range from more basic automation, like self-checkout stands at a store, to more complicated robots or drones. And while robotics hasn’t progressed as quickly as developers or sci-fi novels would have us believe, robots have taken on food delivery, warehouse work and other jobs typically performed by humans.

Retail stores and warehouses have been early adopters in the crisis. Warehouse robots have become more important as facilities across the country try to function in a socially distanced environment, which means workers take more time to complete tasks.

American Eagle Outfitters last month bought 26 warehouse robots to help the apparel company sort through mounds of clothes people ordered online, robot-maker Kindred said in a news release. The robots help maintain social distancing standards, Kindred wrote, and maintain a “safe working environment.”

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Earlier this year, Amazon said it would start licensing its cashierless shopping software to other stores as retailers seek to limit face-to-face contact and cut wait times in line. The “Just Walk Out” system uses computer vision to track customers throughout stores. When they’re done shopping, customers walk out of the store without ever scanning and paying for items. That technology has sparked more interest from retailers as grocery and other store workers face danger and exhaustion during the pandemic.

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

At least two companies are adapting drones to fly inside sports stadiums and spray disinfectant solution onto the thousands of seats in the hope of making the areas safe for crowds again. One company, EagleHawk, said it spent months researching a method to spray huge arenas in a way that can both disinfect from the virus and be done quickly. Otherwise, it might be too costly and time-consuming to fully disinfect such huge spaces.

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“Along with a public health crisis and epidemic of illness, the virus may well prompt a new spike of automation and lasting changes to an already rapidly evolving job market,” Muro and Brookings researchers Robert Maxim and Jacob Whiton wrote in a report about the initial effects of the virus on automation.

Robots that clean

An early example — driven by necessity as companies work to keep facilities and public spaces clean and safe — is the huge spike in demand for cleaning and disinfecting robots from hospitals, nursing homes, airports and hotels.

The LightStrike robot in use at the San Diego hospital is a box on wheels with a mushroom-shaped light sticking out of it. It’s so powerful, the company says, it can disinfect a space of 99.99 percent of the virus that causes covid-19 in less than five minutes. That’s something humans can’t achieve as quickly, although humans are still needed for general cleaning and sanitizing, as well as operating the robot. For now, the robots are increasing staffing levels, if anything, given the demands for sanitation amid the pandemic, Mandalia said.

People can’t be in the room while the machine disinfects, so workers instead set up the LightStrike, leave the room, and then come back after the first cycle to reposition chairs, flip over mattresses and turn the call button around to get ready for the second cycle. They run it about three times.

Its maker, Xenex, said sales have shot up 600 percent this year alone as hospitals, airports and hotels scramble to disinfect rooms of the coronavirus.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs mass transit in New York City, is also testing out ultraviolet light as a way to kill the coronavirus on trains and buses, hoping to make them safer to ride as the pandemic continues.

The MTA started using 150 lights from Puro Lighting, a company that says its sales are already up 700 percent from all of last year because of the pandemic. Puro is working on a fully robotic disinfecting light that will map and navigate a room entirely on its own without needing an operator. Right now it sells lights that are stationary or are mounted on rolling bases that can be pushed.

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“The nice thing with a robot is no one has to press a button,” said CEO Brian Stern. “You don’t have to pay for another employee.”

Using UV lights to disinfect bacteria has been around for decades, the Food and Drug Administration points out. Mounting them to mobile and autonomous robots is an invention that has mostly developed over the past decade and is facing a jump in innovation as a result of the pandemic.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has already created software for a UV disinfecting robot that moves by itself, though it still needs some human help. Robotics researchers at the school deployed the robot with Ava Robotics in June at the Greater Boston Food Bank as more and more people sought help as unemployment numbers skyrocketed. The robot learned the outline of the food bank’s main room and moves around at night, showering it with disinfecting light.

“By knowing the geometry of the space — usually represented as a map — the robot can compute a patrolling trajectory and speed to expose all surfaces to the dosage that neutralizes the pathogens,” said Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory.

The robot came together in about a month, Rus said, though it was based on more than a decade of research into mobile robotics. Now her department is fielding several calls each week from others interested in trying it out, and she expects the product will expand.

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Other cleaning robots are used in tandem with workers, ideally to speed up cleaning. Big, automated floor scrubbers — which drive themselves and look like small Zambonis off the ice — are being used more often this year than in the past, said Eugene Izhikevich, CEO and co-founder of software company Brain Corp.

The San Diego company makes the software, or the “brain,” that goes into many of the machines, something that allows them to map a room and learn the route within a day. The robots are being used about 24 percent more this year than last year, Izhikevich says.

That’s largely to keep facilities as clean as possible during the pandemic. It’s also to keep employees away from each other.

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Before the pandemic, employees of Flagship Facility Services, a contractor cleaning airports around the country, would use the hour while the floor scrubber worked to detail-clean corners and edges. Now they each work in a separate area, usually away from each other, said Gustavo Solis, director of operations at Flagship, and disinfect “touch points” such as electrical outlets and door handles that are heavily used.

“During covid, we shifted that labor to be cost-competitive with clients,” Solis said.

Work in progress

But not everyone sees automation as worth the money.

Juan Padilla, owner of Spotless Cleaning Chicago, said the scrubbers would have to save him three hours of human labor every day to make it worth the price tags of between $30,000 and $50,000.

“Companies that are selling this equipment are making it seem like, ‘Hey, this is the best thing ever,’ but I’m not seeing much implementation of it to be honest,” said Padilla, whose company works mostly with office buildings.

Rainbow Property Maintenance, also in Chicago, signed up to be part of the pilot for the Whiz robotic industrial vacuum cleaner, which learns a space and cleans the carpet autonomously, from SoftBank.

“We tried it, and man, we really wanted to fit the square peg into the round hole,” said Rainbow consulting technology manager John Duda. “We really wanted to make it work.”

But if it didn’t have big swaths of carpet to clean, it got stuck in corners, Duda said. And employees, perhaps worried about being replaced, picked up their productivity and could finish the same job faster, he said.

SoftBank spokesman Kass Dawson said customers are confident in Whiz and “see its efficiency every day.”

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Companies are probably right to be a little cautious, said Françoise Carré, a research director at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who has been working with UCLA researcher and professor Chris Tilly on a wide-ranging study for more than two years looking at technology across retail.

“One thing we do know is that it takes a fair amount of time to train these robots,” Tilly said. In some cases, the researchers heard of robots still struggling to learn shelf inventory after being in stores for nearly a year.

Big tech adoptions could certainly risk job losses for retail and custodial workers, which would disproportionately affect women and people of color, who hold the jobs in greater numbers, said Tilly.

But exactly how that will play out is unclear. Even though the pandemic has caused demand for cleaning robots to surge, there are also a lot of employees out of work who might be willing to do the jobs at low wages.

But the cleaning robots are also doing some psychological work — convincing customers, travelers and patients that spaces are clean and orderly during the pandemic.

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Brain Corp.'s Izhikevich said two-thirds of the increase of usage he’s seeing in the automated floor scrubbers is due to robots operating during daytime hours, a fairly uncommon time for the big machines to run. Daytime usage hours have more than doubled since last year, he said. They are usually turned on at night when buildings are mostly empty.

A lot of customers asked for increased day work during the early months of the pandemic said Padilla from Spotless Cleaning. They wanted touch points such as doorknobs cleaned nearly constantly, he said.

“I think the first maybe two months people were really afraid,” he said, noting customers have since backed off daytime cleaning a bit.

The pandemic won’t last forever, but Rus says the robots, especially the disinfection robots, will persist and expand into more hotels, hospitals and warehouses.

“Wouldn’t you feel safer being in a space that has not only been dusted and swept, but is also certified to be virus-free?” she asked.