As the pandemic continues, cleaning robots are showing up for duty at the office

Airflow is a subject dear to Charlie Strange’s heart. As the facilities director for a Texas facility operated by HVAC manufacturer Goodman, he helps oversee the production of heating, ventilation, and AC units in the world’s fifth-largest factory building — 4.2 million square feet of space, all dedicated to the generation of hot and cold currents and gusts.

But when the pandemic forced Goodman to send thousands of workers home, Strange had to consider airflow anew — specifically, how the eddies and flows inside his Texas plant would affect the work of his latest hire: a cleaning robot named Breezy One that trundles around the gargantuan factory, spraying a fine mist of virus-killing disinfectant onto the surfaces. For office managers looking at a pandemic-tinged future, such considerations could well become routine.

“This robot’s going to be able to clean 200,000 square feet of office and conference rooms in two, maybe two and a half hours,” Strange tells The Verge. “It would take my team all night long to do that — wiping down every surface by hand.”

When Strange unpacked the Breezy One, the first tasks he and the machine’s creators, Build With Robots, had to tackle was a contaminant study — finding out exactly where the bot’s disinfectant mist could clean. To carry out this study, technicians dropped test plates around the plant populated with microbes taken from the compost heap of Kimberly Corbitt, Build With Robots’ head of customer engagement.

“It’s the worst smelling thing you’ve ever smelled in your life,” says Corbitt of her compost. “I dilute it in a giant pitcher of water, put it into a spray bottle, then spray it onto these foam plates. The first time I did it, the total viable count was out of the testable range and I had to dilute it by a factor of 100. My compost is really healthy.”

Before Breezy One could start cleaning, it had to be guided around Goodman’s offices to map the area. 
GIF: Goodman

Each plate is divided into two halves: one side covered and the other side uncovered. Once the plates have been placed, Breezy One does its thing, spreading a mist of disinfectant around the area. The next day, technicians check to see what percentage of microbes have been killed off, comparing the uncovered half of the plates with the covered half as a control sample. In essence, they’re checking that the disinfectant is getting everywhere it should.

This is why airflow is important, says Strange, as his team had to account for the building’s air conditioning units when checking the spread of the disinfectant around its offices and meeting rooms. “We might slow down the robot or change the route based on the dispersal pattern because of the HVAC or how high the ceiling is,” he says.

Thankfully, Goodman found that Breezy One worked as advertised. “The dispersal pattern on it is very nice, it mists very well, which means [the disinfectant] floats and can get into all those areas,” says Strange. “That’s one of the reasons you want the airflow in the room going, because it helps deliver it around the room, rather than having it shoot straight up and fall straight down.”

The robot itself is about the size of a bulky trash can, with a wheeled base and two large mist-producing jet nozzles on top that stick out like a pair of swiveling eyes. It moves at a steady walking pace, using a combination of LIDAR and 3D cameras to navigate like a self-driving car. And it’s not the only robot making its way into these sorts of shared spaces.

Cleaning machines have come into fashion with the pandemic. Hospitals around the world have been deploying them since the spring, using robots that radiate ultraviolet light to kill germs and viruses rather than “foggers” like Breezy One. Airports and arenas are getting in on the action, too, with the latter using drones that spray disinfectant over stadium seating. Now it seems offices are next. The demand certainly seems to be there, with one US manufacturer, Xenex, saying sales of its UV cleaning robots are up 600 percent compared to 2019.

A UV robot cleaning floors at Pittsburgh International Airport.
 Image: Pittsburgh International Airport

Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, the company that makes the autonomous base of Breezy One, tells The Verge that interest in disinfecting robots has taken off swiftly. She says the two main types of machines — UV emitters and foggers — are suited to different markets, with the former better suited for small rooms and the latter working best in larger spaces.

Robots like these will become staple fixtures “in any area that has a large amount of the general public filtering through,” predicts Wise. “There’s just a large need to provide continuous disinfection.” She says, although the pandemic has prompted many companies to investigate these machines. If the robots prove their effectiveness, they’ll likely become a regular part of cleaning operations even after COVID-19 is under control.

“Whether or not it’s COVID, there’s always going to be some next viral thing coming through that [companies] will want to disinfect,” says Wise. “We’re looking at having one at our headquarters for flu season, for example, as I would guess maybe 30 percent of staff ends up out because of flu.”

“I think people should be demanding that these things are in their offices,” she adds.

Some buyers certainly see the robots as investments for an uncertain future. Pamela Ott, deputy city manager for Pleasanton, an affluent city in Alameda County, California, purchased three UV cleaning robots for operation in various government facilities — the city permit office, the library, and senior center — and says she thinks they’ll be useful long beyond the duration of the pandemic.

“We purchased the robots because we know they’re helpful now and helpful in the long run,” Ott told The Verge. “We look around and we look ahead, and we don’t think COVID is going away, certainly not in the very near future…. And we know any time we can better clean and disinfect our facilities, that’s a good position for us.”

Ott says each of the three machines she purchased from local distributor SNAP Solutions cost around $99,000 but that the price was worth it. “It’s a significant outlay for a city, but it’s our belief that our purchase of the robot is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure the safety of our employees and community members,” says Ott. The makers of Pleasanton’s new cleaning robots, Blue Ocean Robotics, say they’ve sold to a number of customers for use in offices and that interest has also spiked from hotels in recent months.

Robots like those built by Blue Ocean Robotics (above) use ultraviolet light to blast germs off surfaces. 
Image: Blue Ocean Robotics

Gauging how effective these machines actually are at protecting people from COVID is difficult, though. Build With Robots, maker of the Breezy One, claims that the disinfectant its machines use kills 99.9999 percent of bacteria, as well as the novel coronavirus. (The chemical solution in question is a brand known as Aeris Active.) But killing the virus by cleaning surfaces is not the same as safeguarding real-world environments from COVID-19.

Scientists know that the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets — small droplets of saliva, mucus, and other internal fluids that are created when we cough, sneeze, talk, or simply breathe. But the most common ways for these droplets to spread the virus from person to person is still a matter of ongoing investigation. Current evidence suggests that COVID-19 “spreads easily” when people are in close contact with one another, while transmission via contaminated surfaces is “less common,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that means wearing masks and stopping people from crowding together is likely to be more important for hygiene purposes than cleaning desks, door handles, and other surfaces.

Despite this, those buying robots for surface cleaning hope the machines will at least help more than they harm. Strange says that his robots are at least saving the company money. Although Goodman won’t share exactly what it’s paying for Breezy One, Build With Robots says the cost for hiring its machines is between $3,250 and $10,750 a month, depending on the number of robots and the length of the contract. Strange also adds that no workers have been or will be let go because of the machines and that they’re simply taking on work that would have been done during overtime by human staff.

What Strange says is most impressive, though, is how easy it is now to integrate this sort of technology into an ordinary office like those used by Goodman. “I’ve dealt with a lot of automation over a lot of years and I’ve yet to find an honest-to-god fire and forget,” he says. “But if we’d been talking five, seven years ago I’d have had a team of four to keep this thing running. And now I’m just going to have one person moving it from zone to zone. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”

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Robots help ABQ Sunport cleaning crews disinfect faster

The Albuquerque Sunport is really stepping up its cleaning protocols.

“When COVID-19 started, I think a lot of things started coming to the forefront. How often are we sanitizing tables and handrails and those types of things?” said Stephanie Kitts, Albuquerque Sunport spokesperson.

The Sunport now has an autonomous robot named Breezy One that disinfects. The Sunport got it from Build with Robotics and Fetch Robotics, to help keep areas extra clean.

“We learned about the amazing things they’re doing. They also had a partnership with Electric Playhouse,” Kitts said.

According to Build with Robots, it can safely and effectively decontaminate spaces over 100 thousand square feet in less than two hours.

“They can tell the robot which part of the airport to disinfect, they push the button and Breezy goes and does that part of the job while crews do something else,” said Kimberly Corbitt, Build With Robots Chief Commercial Officer.

And it uses a patented, environmentally safe disinfectant, that was originally developed at Sandia National Labs.

The Sunport says Breezy One will be rolling around every night, to add another layer of protection and to keep travelers and workers safe.

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Local company creates sanitizing robots

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A local company has built a sanitizing robot that’s being used right here in Albuquerque. The robot is called “Breezy One” and it can cover a lot of ground, fast.

“Breezy can go in quickly and efficiently, disinfect a hundred thousand square feet in an hour and a half… while the janitorial staff is off doing something else that’s part of their work. We’re in a time of such uncertainty with so much fear and being able to do something that not only reassures staff that they are working in a safe environment but makes that facility safe for the public,” said Kimberly Corbitt with Build with Robots.

Build with Robots created the Breezy One because of the COVID pandemic. The company teamed up with “Fetch Robotics” of the silicon valley and says it’s specifically designed for large spaces like airports and factories.

The Albuquerque International Sunport currently has four breezy ones cruising around cleaning the facility. The robot has been used before at the Electric Playhouse. It’s been at the Sunport for about a week.

“The disinfecting procedure begins each night after the last flight departs… Breezy One has the terminals digitally mapped out so they are programmed to sanitize the entire space in a very efficient hands-free and safe manner. And the disinfecting space can be re-entered in as little as two hours, with no harmful residue to employees or passengers,” said Jonathan Small a spokesperson for the Sunport.

The sanitizing spray being used by the robots was made at Sandia labs. The company is in talks with other airports to use them there as well. News 13 reached out to APS and we are told the district is aware of products like these but they will consider cost when purchasing cleaning equipment.

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March of the COVID-fighting robots

An army of disinfecting robots has been enlisted in the fight against the coronavirus, as companies seek fast, safe and effective ways of cleaning and sanitizing workplaces and other public spaces.

One of the latest entrants is from Fetch Robotics, a cloud robotics and on-demand automation firm. The company partnered with Build with Robots (BWR), a developer of industrial robots, and the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to release the Breezy One, a disinfecting autonomous mobile robot.

The companies announced the robot’s debut on June 18.

What is unique about the Breezy One, according to Kimberly Corbitt, Build with Robots’ head of customer engagement, is that it is specially designed for large spaces, such as airports, factories and warehouses.

“It safely and effectively disinfects 100,000 square feet in an hour and a half,” Corbitt told FreightWaves. For comparison, she said, it would take a team of people an entire shift to disinfect a facility of that size.

After the robot has finished cleaning, employees can reenter the space in about two hours, “confident that allergens, bacteria and viruses have been taken out of the air and surface,” Corbitt said.

The Breezy One uses a patented, EPA-registered, government-developed and -tested disinfecting chemical originally developed to kill harmful biological agents. It eliminates around 99.9999% of viruses and bacteria, according to the companies.

A good fit for warehouse and fulfillment

Put into service last month, the Breezy One was developed with the city of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department, where it sanitizes the city’s airport facilities every night. But the team has its eye on other large spaces, which require significantly more manpower and labor costs to sanitize, and which often expose employees to cleaning chemicals that can be harmful in their own right.

Founded in 2014, Fetch Robotics already has a large presence in the warehousing space, Melonee Wise, Fetch CEO, told FreightWaves. “For customers who already have robots, this is going to be a quick and easy add.”

The base of Breezy One is the same generic autonomous mobile robot the company deploys for point-to-point delivery in the warehouse, Wise explained. “Then we marry that with a purpose-built robot for disinfections.”

Since BWR built Breezy One on Fetch Robotics’ cloud software platform, customers can remotely change the robot’s paths, schedules and frequencies as needs change.

Unlike some of the other solutions on the market, the Breezy does not use UV light to kill coronavirus microbes. A growing body of research suggests that UV light can kill the novel coronavirus, and the solution is currently in use as a disinfectant. Amazon, for one, has built a UV-light emitting robot to kill the virus in its Whole Food stores.

While UV light can be effective for smaller spaces with flat surfaces such as surgical units, the Breezy One team believes that is not the best fit for large spaces like warehouses that “don’t have perfectly flat surfaces,” Corbitt said, but are “more textured, like cardboard.”

Warehouses have a lot of corners and edges, “and for that you need an effective and safe chemical that can take things out of the air and can cover those surfaces in a way that UV can never reach,” Corbitt said.

Allaying fears about robots displacing workers, the team said the Breezy One does not replace janitorial staff but instead integrates into their workflows. Disinfecting is dangerous and difficult work, Corbitt noted, requiring workers to suit up with personal protective equipment, carry disinfectant on their backs, and then spray and be exposed to large volumes of chemicals.

“It’s hot, uncomfortable, physically painful and really boring,” she said.

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Fetch Robotics partners with Build With Robots + Albuquerque airport to launch autonomous disinfecting robot

Designed to protect Albuquerque Sunport airport employees and passengers from both harmful pathogens and cleaning agents, Breezy One can quickly, safely and effectively decontaminate spaces over 100,000 square feet in 1.5 hours with a patented, environmentally safe disinfectant.

Breezy One was co-developed with the City of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department, where it autonomously sanitizes the Sunport’s facilities every night in the ongoing fight against Covid-19.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many organizations have implemented routine sanitization procedures to eliminate traces of the novel coronavirus from public spaces.

Disinfection is a time intensive task for spaces of any size, as every surface – from visible ones like door handles to less-visible areas like the undersides of seats and tables – has to be sanitized in order to fully eliminate the virus.

These challenges are multiplied for large scale facilities, which require significantly more manpower and labor costs to sanitize, and which often expose employees to cleaning chemicals which can be harmful in their own right.

The Breezy One autonomous mobile robot is the first solution to offer efficient, hands-free, and safe sanitization specifically designed for large scale facilities. Breezy One can disinfect a 100,000 square-foot facility in 1.5 hours eliminating 99.9999% of viruses and bacteria.

The disinfected space can be re-entered in as little as two hours with no harmful residue or risk to employees or passengers.

Co-developed with the City of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department and built in the United States, Breezy One launched earlier this month and has been shown to effectively and safely sanitize the entire airport.

The Build with Robots team is able to remotely change the robot’s paths, schedules and frequencies as needs change, thanks to Fetch Robotics’ cloud software and base robot.

Nyika Allen, director of aviation for the City of Albuquerque, says: “We are pleased to add Breezy One to our team to help keep the entire Sunport community safe. Our custodial staff is one of the best in the nation, and this is a welcomed addition to not only help with our new cleaning and sanitization procedures, but to keep them safe in the process.

“This is one of several measures we’ve put in place to welcome travelers back to the Sunport in a Covid-19 world. We want travelers to know that when they’re ready, we’re ready for them.”

The Sunport is using Breezy One to conduct nightly sanitizing runs to ensure the airport is as clean and safe as possible for passengers and employees each day.

The largest commercial airport in New Mexico, the Sunport currently has four Breezy Ones deployed for facility-wide disinfection.

Thanks to Breezy One, the Sunport is able to protect custodial staff from tactile exposure to Covid-19 germs and harsh chemicals while also allowing them to focus on providing service and value across the airport rather than spending time on extra sanitization procedures.

Kimberly Corbitt, Build With Robots chief commercial officer, says: “At Build With Robots, our mission is to bring safe, effective and scalable sanitization solutions to the places that will have the biggest impact on both visitor and employee safety.

“As the world’s most effective autonomous disinfection robot, we are excited the Breezy One can be deployed to partners like the Sunport where it will keep visitors safe, while also protecting hard-working employees.”

Throughout the design of the Breezy One, a key concern was selecting a disinfectant strong enough to eliminate harmful viruses and bacteria at scale while being safe for employees and passengers to re-enter in a timely manner.

Most disinfecting robots either do not have the high rate of elimination of harmful pathogens or require up to 24 hours before entry back into the disinfected space.

Tim Keller, Albuquerque Mayor, says: “Airports are a heavily trafficked facility, and the Sunport is New Mexico’s largest commercial airport. We have a duty to keep travelers and employees of the Sunport safe and healthy.

“Breezy One and the disinfectant developed right here in Albuquerque are two critical pieces to aid in that very important task.”

Breezy One’s disinfectant was originally developed by Sandia National Laboratories for mitigation and decontamination of chemical and biological agents and is one of the strongest and most vetted disinfection agents commercially available.

The EPA-registered disinfectant has been tested by nine government agencies and over 10 independent laboratories, is effective against viruses (including the novel coronavirus), bacteria and spores, and meets nationwide hospital requirements for pathogen disinfection.

Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, says: “Now, more than ever, the top priority for any facility is to ensure the health and safety of employees and customers.

“Through our work with the Build with Robots team, we were able to move from product conception to commercial deployment in only three months, a timeline that reflects the urgency of the challenge and the world class team responsible for the robot itself.”


Click here to the original article in Robotics and Automation news.


Changing the Way We Paint

Build With Robots has helped launch PaintingBots, a startup focused on revolutionizing the way we paint. The world is changing. Painting is changing, and PaintingBots is leading that change. PaintingBots will change the way we paint by offering a cleaner, more efficient and higher quality painting solution. PaintingBots is founded by a team of seasoned entrepreneurs who are building a world-leading company to improve the painting industry through the use of data and automation.

Force CoPilot

CoBots with the Sense of Touch

Robot technology is evolving rapidly. For example, force/torque sensors provide a robot with the sense of “touch.” With a collaborative robot (CoBot), touch is combined with intuitive ease-of-use to simplify many applications for the lay person. And remember that CoBots allow people and robots to work together. Here are some things that you can do with a CoBot using the sense of touch:

Precise object placement: When loading parts into a fixture for machine tending, the sense of touch is used to find the exact part location. Changes is the position or size of the raw stock material can be automatically corrected by measuring insertion force in the same way that people use the sense of touch.

Controlled force and stiffness: For robotic sanding, the force/torque sensor will control the applied force and stiffness with more precision and repeatability than a person. A person can setup and fine tune a robotic sanding operation, and then use the CoBot to perform the dusty and tedious work of sanding.

Object alignment & insertion: For robotic screwdriving, a spiral search operation is used to perfectly align a screw within a hole to prevent cross-threading. Searching with the sense of touch adjusts for any mechanical drift or errors in the screw or hole location. Also, screw turning can be precisely controlled with the torque sensor to ensure that the screw in not under or over tightened.

Hand-guided path recording: For glue dispensing, the Force CoPilot CoBot app enables the user to: (1) constrain the path to only planar motion, (2) define a complex path by hand movement of the robot arm, and (3) repeat that path at a constant velocity so that the glue is dispensed evenly. A person can use a CoBot to dispense glue more consistently than by hand.

Welding Super Vanagon Bracket

Robotic Welding for NM-MEP Manufacturing Day

Each fall, New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NM-MEP) sponsors Manufacturing Day for New Mexico manufacturers to showcase their operations. At this year’s Manufacturing Day event, Build With Robots hosted tours at CNM-Ingenuity’s FUSE Makerspace that included robotic welding. On that day, Andrew Vanis of Super Vanagon was at FUSE to work on a welding fabrication project. Super Vanagon makes a custom mirror kit for the now vintage Volkswagen Vanagon model years 1982-1992. This kit solves the “floppy mirror” problem associated with this model of Volkswagen. On that day, Andrew planned to start MIG welding a total of 160 mirror brackets (80 pairs), a project that would take him many days.

Andrew was in luck – his project offered a perfect demo for NM-MEP’s Manufacturing Day. So, Build With Robots partnered with Andrew to launch an automated welding project for his brackets. This transformed a couple days of manual welding into a couple hours of robot welding.  Within only a few hours, one of the CNM-Ingenuity welding instructors at FUSE trained Andrew in the setup and use of the robotic welder. Andrew had pre-built a simple fixture to orient the stock metal pieces properly for welding. This fixture is needed for both manual or robotic welding to orient the two plates correctly.

Next, Andrew experimented with the adjustment and fine tuning of welding parameters to optimize the bead and penetration for the MIG welding of his steel brackets. Because the robotic welder can be adjusted to create a specific weld type and size, Andrew was able to create his desired weld with consistency over many brackets. After fine tuning for the exact bead size and shape, he repeated the welding process over and over with a simple push of a button. Before long, Andrew was mass producing brackets. The entire process: from never seeing the robot before, to learning how to program it, and then to use it to weld a box of parts took less than one day.  The expected days of manually welding 160 brackets was completed in just a couple of robot welding hours.

Robotic welding is just one example of what small and micro manufacturing businesses can do at the FUSE Makerspace. Makerspace members accomplish projects like Andrew’s on high-end machine tools without needing to purchase expensive equipment. FUSE instructors are available to train and support users to ensure project success. This is a great example of the New Mexico manufacturing community working together to leverage automation, expertise and high-end equipment.