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FLEXA: A Robot That Revolutionises Industrial Cleaning
March 1, 2023 News


Written by: Izzat Najmi Abdullah,  Journalist, AOPG.

Over the weekend, I overheard a cleaning lady grumbling something along the lines of, “Cleaning mud after a big flood is easier than trying to keep a large commercial area spotless.” Now that may seem like an over-exaggeration but there is some truth in it.

Janitors may spend many hours a day sweeping, mopping, and scouring because of the large areas that they typically have to cover on any given day. But what if I said that there was a way to free up human janitors so that they can have more time in doing more high-value work?

That would be the dream, right?!

Globotix, a company that specialises in robotics and high technologies for the environmental sector in Singapore has something that could help businesses keep clean, without all the fuss!

Globotix has been making waves in the Singaporean Facilities Management industry since 2016 with its AI-enabled robots that leverage computer vision, enhanced monitoring, real-time, analytics software, data streaming, and much more. Today, the company is still committed to making strides in the high-tech industry, pioneering the next generation of innovative products both in Singapore and around the world.

In an interview, Jonathan Quek, Founder and CEO, Globotix said, “I realised that technology may be the perfect answer to the endemic problem of manpower shortage in the cleaning industry. As I researched further, it was clear to me that cleaning robots would serve a niche purpose in this aspect.”

“So I found a supplier of cleaning robots and became a distributor in Singapore, supplying and deploying cleaning robots to a diverse array of companies from various verticals,” Jonathan continued.

A Solution to Labour Shortages and Post-Pandemic Challenges

Workers in Singapore appear to be in agreement that robots will soon be replacing humans in cleaning and facilities management roles. This can be backed up with reports stating that since 2015, the number of robots in Singapore has increased at an annualised rate of 27%, as reported by the International Federation of Robotics.

The pandemic that took place in 2020 hastened this larger transition to robotics when borders were closed, limiting the availability of human employees. As a result of this change, the country experienced a severe lack of workers, leading many businesses to turn to robots in order to maintain productivity. As it stands, it appears that robotics and automation are still picking up pace, playing a crucial role in helping businesses like service and facilities maintenance find workers in the post-pandemic era.

Support chores that previously required a lot of manual labour have been taken over by these robots, allowing humans more time to focus on other important activities or acquire new skills.

Jonathan said that he personally has witnessed the transition in the industry from being labour-intensive to technology-enabled. “In 2016, when Globotix first started out, there were less than 5 cleaning robots in Singapore but in the span of 6-7 years, we have deployed hundreds of robots across all verticals from shopping malls, hospitals, universities, the airport, MRT train stations, logistics companies, and third-party logistics just to name a few.

Globotix Flexing FLEXA

Now, let us get into the juicy parts of what is FLEXA and how it helps in the industrial cleaning industry. FLEXA is a two-part, modular cleaning robot with several different capabilities. The module is a detachable item that may be connected to the base for a particular cleaning function, such as vacuuming or scrubbing, while the base holds the robot’s essential components, such as the battery and sensor systems. With this revolutionary modular approach, a single robot’s capabilities may be maximised and the need for specialised robots can be reduced.

FLEXA’s vacuuming module means it can launch with a cleaning productivity of 12.38 square feet per second, and it can vacuum an indoor space of 100 square feet in around 8 or 9 seconds. The vacuum has a cyclone filtering technology designed by Globotix and HEPA filters to better clean surfaces and purifies the air as it exhausts. It can be used on both carpeted and hard floors. The module also includes a 40-litre dustbin that can function without trash can liners or other disposable containers, reducing the robot’s environmental impact and operating costs.

“The reason we developed FLEXA is that we realised that cleaning robots were not very cost-effective. For years, they can only serve one function and not to mention, are extremely expensive. Take, for instance, scrubbing robots that can only scrub floors and not do other jobs like sweeping and vacuuming. That is not the only downside though, for most of the time, these cleaning robots spent their time charging! In which they can all be considered idle and underutilised,” Jonathan said.

Contrast that with FLEXA, which can be fully exploited at all times due to its multifunctional capabilities. It can be set to do morning sweeping, afternoon scrubbing, and evening buffing. Companies and even housewives/househusbands can cut their total cost of ownership with the help of FLEXA.

Some other features of FLEXA include:

  • The robot’s in-built algorithmic navigation programmes can plot the most efficient course between cleaning stations, avoiding user-designated no-go zones.
  • The SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping with 2D LiDAR) system and automatic scheduling features are also included. A website is available for diagnostic testing and visualisation.
  • Furthermore, the robot may automatically dock and undock itself according to a user-defined timetable.
  • FLEXA also has a long working time of 8-10 hours between charges.
  • FLEXA can sweep hard floors and carpeted areas with equal efficiency thanks to its cyclone system for collecting dust and debris.

Integrating Artificial Intelligence Into an Already Intelligent Cleaning Robot

If FLEXA is almost perfect and possesses unrivalled cleaning capabilities as Globotix claims, why does it need AI?

According to the company, FLEXA uses onboard algorithmic navigation programmes to find optimal cleaning routes between cleaning points while avoiding prohibited areas. The programme can generate reports for cleaning sessions and plan its route via an efficiency-based algorithm. For example, the user can select any zones for cleaning, and FLEXA will also keep track of the zones that are not covered in a session.

These programmes allow FLEXA to optimise its own workload and manage its own task with minimal input from the user.

FLEXA combines 3D cameras and AI to clean better than ever before. With 3D cameras, we can see what’s on the ground and use machine-learning to determine what it is (for example, a spill or an unattended bag), then we can send the appropriate robot module (a scrubber to clean up the spill or an alert to security to check out the bag) to deal with the issue. Therefore, FLEXA helps reduce the need for labour-intensive spot cleaning, making it possible to run the entire cleaning procedure with essentially no human involvement at all.

Safety is Globotix’s Number 1 Priority

We have all heard stories and conspiracy theories about the dangers of AI and how it could potentially bring harm towards humans. So what does Globotix do in terms of ensuring safety for their users?

Jonathan said that to make sure that FLEXA is safe to use, they have designed numerous safety features to ensure that the robot can never hurt or harm users or bystanders. This includes setting safety zones, emergency brakes, and indicator lights. These functions are facilitated by the 2D LiDAR, 3D Cameras, SONAR/Ultrasonic Sensors, and last but not least, a Safety Bumper.

In addition, there are two distinct buffer zones built into the robot’s design: One that is dependent on the robot’s speed and extends outward for 5 metres, and another that extends outward for 30cm around the robot. Whenever the robot detects a person 5 metres away, it will begin slowing down and will stop completely 3 metres away from the person. In the event that a human suddenly entered the danger zone, the robot would come to an immediate halt.

In the event that neither of these fails to protect the area, the robot is equipped with bumpers that will cause it to brake if something or someone comes into contact with them, and a red emergency button that anybody can press to halt the robot if danger looks to be imminent. The robot also features coloured indication lights that reveal its current operating mode and directional lights that reveal whether it is turning to the left or right. The robot can also make noises to alert those around it of its presence or actions.

Currently, Globotix is looking to develop more modules for other functions like diverse cleaning functions, security functions, and building inspection just to name a few.

“Further down the road, we will be looking into ways of integrating FLEXA into smart buildings. We are also intending to create a smaller-capacity FLEXA for tighter spaces,” Jonathan said, talking about the future plans of FLEXA and thus ending the interview.