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January 1999



Cleaning Up With Roboticsrobot photo

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 Technology (CIT).

The Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, May 9, 1999
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