Robots work here

UBC’s Vancouver’s Building Operations unit is always looking at the future of work and ways to improve the work we do. We are currently working to design and integrate automation solutions into our day-to-day work.

One of the areas of our work that has benefited from this focus on the future is our custodial department. Our investments in our custodial team have included systems that automatically measure and mix surfactants, help balance staff scheduling, and track service requests and completion.

As part of this effort, we are currently collaborating with UBC alumni-run company A&K Robotics and our custodial staff to find ways to make routine physical tasks easier and improve safety at work. This partnership has helped A&K identify and develop an automation system for our fleet of powered floor scrubbers.

Robotic floor scrubbers

The UBC Vancouver campus has over 9 million square feet of floor in our core academic buildings — so being able to automate even a small part of this routine job is a huge opportunity to balance our custodians’ work load. To achieve this, following a three-week pilot in May 2018 and a procurement search for the best options, UBC entered into an agreement with A&K Robotics to supply the university with automation systems to create robotic floor scrubbers.

What is a floor scrubber?

Floor scrubbers are battery-powered machines, about the size of a motorcycle, which our custodians use to power-mop and polish much of the 9 million square feet of core academic space at UBC.

A conventional floor scrubber being piloted by a UBC Custodian

What is a robotic floor scrubber?

The floor scrubber becomes a robot when A&K Robotics install a ‘brain’ on the top of one of UBC’s standard floor scrubbers, along with a ring of depth sensors around the bottom of the machine. The scrubber is now, with route training and oversight from a custodian, able to work autonomously and react to changes in its environment like moving people or relocated furnishings.

The robots use artificial intelligence to learn routine cleaning patterns from custodial staff. The robot cleans the floor the same way a custodian would, just without a custodian having to walk behind it the whole time. Having the machine automated frees the custodian to do other tasks and, in some cases, helps custodians who may have limited physical abilities by doing the ‘walking’ for them. Like with a regular floor scrubber, the custodian still has to fill it with water, maintain the battery power, and keep the reservoirs clean.

One of the A&K enabled robotic floor scrubbers during our pilot testing in May, 2018

Are robotic floor scrubbers safe?

The robotic floor scrubbers are equipped with advanced fail-safe sensor systems to ensure safe and reliable operation in environments with people and obstacles. A&K Robotics utilizes a number of different sensor technologies with overlapping fields of coverage to provide superior detection and redundancy of 360 degrees around the robot, providing the spatial awareness required to stop and avoid objects in its path.

There is also a universally recognizable red safety stop button on top of the robot that can be easily accessible from all directions, and the top speed is limited to the equivalent of a slow walk while in autonomous operation mode.

When there is trouble and the robot cannot move forward on its path, it will send a text message to the custodial team to let us know it’s stopped.

Where will I see the robots?

The robots work in public areas with hard-surfaced floors like lino or tile. They can’t independently open doors, climb stairs, or take elevators, so don’t expect to find one in your office or other private spaces. They work during the evening hours, as that allows for the most autonomy possible, thanks to less traffic in the buildings — so you will likely have to be here for a night class or late lab work to encounter one. The robots are currently cleaning over 8000 square feet of space in two of UBC’s buildings, Henry Angus and Life Sciences. In late fall, Building Operations will be adding 5 more robotic floor scrubbers to clean the larger floor space areas on campus like the gyms and long stretches of hallways.

About A&K Robotics

A&K’s founding team are all proud UBC alumni, from the Faculty of Arts, Applied Sciences and the UBC Sauder School of Business. They launched their company through programs UBC has designed to help its emerging entrepreneurs. UBC Building Operations worked with A&K Robotics to develop and trial their product. UBC provided campus buildings and operational expertise to help craft a living lab that was instrumental in helping the company get to where it is now.