For Robots, It’s a Time to Shine (and Maybe Disinfect)


The Neo is a four-foot-tall, 1,000-pound robot floor scrubber. The high-tech machine can cruise large commercial buildings on its own, with no human supervision required.

Since its introduction in 2016, Neo’s sales have roughly doubled each year, said Faizan Sheikh, the chief executive and a co-founder of Avidbots, the Canadian start-up that created the robot. This year, however, demand has shot up 100 percent just since the pandemic-induced shutdown in March. Suddenly, the need for thorough, reliable and frequent cleaning is front and center.

“Before, a top executive at a big company would not really have known how their facilities got cleaned,” Mr. Sheikh said. “They would have outsourced it to a facilities management company, who might outsource it out again.”

Now, company leaders are showing more interest, asking questions about the cleaning process and schedule, as well as safety and effectiveness. “That can lead to interest in automation,” he said.

Indeed, cleaning robots are having a moment in commercial real estate. Their creators are promoting the machines as cost-effective solutions to the cleaning challenges posed by the pandemic. They can be put to frequent use without requiring more paid labor hours, they are always compliant, and some can even provide the data to prove that they have scoured every inch assigned.

“You have to let the chemicals set to do their job, but compliance is tough in the industry,” Mr. Levy said. “If you tell a robot to leave the chemicals for 36 seconds, they leave the chemicals for 36 seconds every single time.”

The idea of robotic cleaning is not new. The first attempts were in the 1970s, Mr. Sheikh said, but the technology was not up to the task, and the machines were “extremely cost prohibitive.”

The Neo is sophisticated enough to create its own maps of a facility after being walked through it a single time, he said. The customer then works with Avidbots to develop cleaning plans, which may vary depending on the day of the week.

“After a human selects a cleaning plan, you press start and walk away,” Mr. Sheikh said. “The robot figures out its own path.”

Designed for facilities of at least 80,000 square feet, Neos sell for $50,000, plus $300 a month for software that tracks cleaning performance. At that price, the break-even point for the buyer is 12 to 18 months, Mr. Sheikh said.

They can also be rented for $2,500 a month, including maintenance and software, on a minimum three-year contract.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport deploys its Neo three or four times a day to clean the hundreds of thousands of square feet of tiled floor, said Brian Cobb, the airport’s chief innovation officer.

“Neo has the artificial intelligence capability where, as it’s moving along its original path, if it sees something in its way, it will go around it,” Mr. Cobb said. “If the obstacle is there the next day, Neo will incorporate it into its map.”

The Whiz leases for $500 to $550 a month, which includes maintenance and data collection that provides clients with “the confirmed clean,” Mr. Dawson said.

“During this fearful period, the folks in buildings have blank looks or even unhappy frowns,” he said. “When the Whiz passes by, it brings a smile to their face. It’s almost like a pet — everybody wants to name it.”



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