Cleaning Up With Robotics
When Richmond-based CyberClean Co. wanted to develop an automated
vacuum machine, it turned to Virginia Tech robotics researchers
for help and established a subsidiary called Servus Robots to
be located at the Blacksburg Corporate Research Center.
It helped that principal investigator John
Bay, an expert in autonomous robots, worked for several years
as a hospital janitor. "I could be one of the only robotics
specialists who also has a personal understanding of custodial
operations," Bay laughed.
CyberClean provides contract cleaning management services for
commercial establishments. The firm is adding a $25,000 robotic
cleaning machine to its product lineup that could autonomously
clean large areas such as airports, hotels, schools, and hospitals
- and attract the attention of passersby.
"There have been several cleaning robots introduced into
the market, but for various reasons, none of them have made a
big splash," Bay said. There are a number of issues involved
in autonomous cleaning robots, he explained. These include various
cleaning operations such as scrubbing floors or vacuuming; the
amount of operator intervention needed; and the navigation system.
"There are many different navigation systems," he said.
"Some require bar codes or other markers on the floor or
walls; others require a complete building survey. We'd like to
develop a completely autonomous system that discovers and avoids
obstacles, automatically turns down hallways, and even uses the
elevator or calls for help when needed."
A major design consideration is appearance: the robot must look
like the robots portrayed in movies and on television, he said.
"Market research indicates that robots apparently are supposed
to look like the Jetson's Rosie, or R2D2."
In order to meet the cost requirements, the team is working to
convert an automated cleaning machine into a robot. "We've
been evaluating existing systems to see which will give us the
most cost-effective robot. Our job involves a complete engineering
evaluation. How well do the various machines work? How much space
can be cleaned in an hour? How long does the battery last? What
makes the machine get stuck?"
After settling on the best candidate, the Servus Robots/Virginia
Tech team plans to work with the research arm of the manufacturer
on software and hardware alterations to the system.
"This is a very workable industry/university team,"
Bay said. "CyberClean knows cleaning and we know robotics."
Other faculty members involved in the effort are Charles Reinholtz
(ME), Bob Sturges (ME/ISE), and Mike Deisenroth ISE. Additional
funding for the project is from the Virginia Center for Innovative