The self-driving winking cleaning robot from start-up Aziobot is attracting quite a few new customers simply by cleaning at Brainport Industries Campus in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. “People see what we do that way, get curious and want to know how it works,” says co-founder Sarthak Yadav. At the end of this summer, the start-up moved into the building where companies from the manufacturing industry, the Fontys Universities of Applied Sciences and Summa College work together on applications for the future. Yadav: “So if there are events here, we make sure that robot BiXi does its work precisely at that time.”
Yadav from India became intrigued by robots already during his studies in Electric Engineering. In addition to his studies, he works with friends on different types of mobile robots. He developed the software for a self-driving cleaning robot together with his co-founder Tapabrata Samanta. With the particular aim of cleaning hard floor surfaces at companies, hospitals and schools. In 2017, the two decide to apply for the Rockstart accelerator program for start-ups in Amsterdam. They were admitted and took part in the AI program that is running in Den Bosch.
Initially, they planned to focus primarily on the software. “The hardware was going to come later.” But investor Kees Koolen, founder of Booking.com and currently with Koolen Industries an investor in companies that contribute to the energy transition, saw a lot of potential in the start-up. With his investment, the start-up is not only able to fine-tune the AI, but also to develop the whole robot more quickly.
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The team worked on the proof of concept from 2019 to the end of 2020. “A lot of improvements had to be made, especially because it is a machine that works with water. That’s tricky because everything has to be completely safe. If there is a leak, for example, the water has got to be collected properly. This is because the robot drives around even when no one is there to discover that there is a leak. We solved that.”
What makes Aziobots robot special is not only its small size of 1 meter by 1 meter, but its smart software in the main, Yadav explains. “You don’t have to teach it anything. All you do is give it instructions that it needs to scrub the floor of a room, you turn it on and it finds its way.” The floor scrubber finds that path by making a map of the room once. Then, by adding cleaning zones, the robot knows where to do extra cleaning, for instance. Sensors and depth cameras ensure that the device drives around obstacles.
The robot gets its energy from the SB2 battery made by Super B, another company owned by investor Koolen. That battery ensures that the machine can run for four to five hours on a full battery. After three hours of charging, the scrubbing machine is eighty percent powered up again.
The robot also has something human-like to it. In order to make contact with the people around it, it has a pair of eyes. During the test phase, the robot also drove around schools and hospitals. There the team discovered that a robot needs to interact with the people around it. “People find machines that really look like machines and that they move autonomously in a creepy way. That was the reason why we came up with eyes that allow the robot to react to what’s going on around it.”
The cleaning machine gives a wink when someone is in front of it, closes its eyes when it is finished, and if something is wrong its eyes turn into crosses. If it makes a turn, the machine lets you know that, too. “Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll let it speak,” To make the robot even more personal, each robot has a different name. ” Children, in particular, respond to it with a lot of curiosity. We now have a model driving around the Nemo Museum in Amsterdam. That robot doesn’t get any cleaning done there!” says Yadav, laughing.
The plan was to launch the robot late last year, but corona prevented that from happening. “After a small hiatus, we started doing demonstrations and pilots in February.” All the robots the start-up had, ten in total, have now been sold. “I can’t show a working one today, unfortunately.” BiXi, which was touring the BIC to demonstrate and polish, is gone as well. Customers are not only in the Netherlands, smart cleaning machines also clean floors in England, Norway and Poland.
Aziobot works with subscriptions. If a robot is not to their liking, a customer simply discontinues the subscription, Yadav explains. “We still need to discover what these robots are best suited for. Not all spaces are suitable.” The current robot can clean smaller spaces of around 200 square meters to larger ones measuring around 16 thousand square meters in size. “For a larger area, you can then use multiple robots.”
Yadav sees plenty of advantages, especially for companies that do not have the time to clean during the day. “Or where it’s dangerous to mop because of the amount of people walking across the floor.” All employees then have to do is turn on the machine at e.g. 5 pm. It starts cleaning at the time you want.
The robot doesn’t polish the skirting boards and always keeps ten centimeters distance. “So, people are still needed to do that. Now with this robot, they can focus on those hard-to-reach areas. A robot can do the large surfaces daily.”
Room for growth
“I think it’s good to show what a robot can do right now. Self-driving cars are still a long way off. Also because of the current regulations,” says Yadav. He doesn’t want to develop a product that will not be in use for another ten or twenty years. “As a start-up, we want to make a robot that is already useful and has economic or social value for people.”
The BIC location is not only ideal for networking, Yadav points out. The great thing about it is that there is also office space, as well as ample room for R&D work and production. The start-up has two thousand square meters of space on the first floor, where the team makes the robots. Five 3D printers are also housed there for the parts that need to hold the robot together. The office now has three desks; it’s still somewhat empty. “But there’s plenty of room for growth,” he adds.
Yadav also hopes to attract new recruits to the team through the collaboration with Summa and Fontys, among others. At the moment the company is still mainly busy with setting up everything. As of early 2022, Yadav wants to start producing larger quantities. “We could use some extra hands for that.”
At the Brainport Industries Campus (BIC), Aziobot will become part of the BIC ONE program, a new concept that focuses on new innovations by linking the strengths of large, established companies to newcomers. As part of the BIC ONE concept, the west wing of Brainport Industries Campus will offer space to start-up and scale-up companies. Companies can rent production space measuring 300m² or more and office space measuring 100m². BIC is thereby lowering the threshold for smaller high-tech companies and the ecosystem can be strengthened further. Martijn van Deursen, who is responsible for the BIC ONE concept on behalf of BIC: “For parties like Aziobot – but also many other start-ups in our sector – this size is interesting. It gives them the opportunity to be a fully-fledged part of BIC, the epitome of the high-tech manufacturing industry. In doing so, they can also make use of the knowledge and innovations of other users and continue to grow within the concept.”