Industry road map could bring robot cleaners to life

Mr Masagos Zulkifli (centre) watching a demonstration of how a battery-operated housekeeping cart is used at Changi Airport's Terminal 3 yesterday. The cart helps to reduce fatigue and enhance productivity.
Mr Masagos Zulkifli (centre) watching a demonstration of how a battery-operated housekeeping cart is used at Changi Airport's Terminal 3 yesterday. The cart helps to reduce fatigue and enhance productivity.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Such tech could be piloted in trials as NEA inks deals with seven organisations

In coming years, people might see robots cleaning and disinfecting hospitals, or older cleaners donning exoskeletons to give them extra support as they work.

Toilets may have sensors that track the level of ammonia, or "anti-smell" tiles at urinal areas, which have a coating that can neutralise the smell of urine.

These are examples of technology trials that the National Environment Agency (NEA) is considering piloting at seven organisations - Changi General Hospital (CGH), Changi Airport Group, property giant City Developments, NTUC Club, the Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence, the Sports Hub and the Esplanade.

Yesterday, NEA and the organisations signed agreements to make the partnership official.

This took place at the launch of the Environmental Services Industry Transformation Map (ITM) at Crowne Plaza Changi Airport hotel, which aims to solve the manpower crunch in the industry, while driving innovation and embracing technology. The ITM is part of a $4.5 billion Industry Transformation Programme covering 23 industries. So far, 15 of 23 ITMs have been launched, in areas such as food manufacturing and financial services.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli unveiled a suite of strategies and initiatives for the environmental services sector, which comprises more than 78,000 cleaning and waste management professionals and over 1,700 companies.

The main thrusts of the initiative are to drive innovation, encourage greater adoption of technology, upgrade skills, increase the productivity of the workforce, and help firms here realise opportunities abroad.

By 2025, about 30,000 people in the sector will have higher-skilled jobs through the effort.

Said Mr Masagos: "In the near future, we can see autonomous cleaning equipment having the capability to 'talk' to one another and take the lift to other floors to perform indoor cleaning operations more independently.

"This will free up their human co-workers' time to focus on higher-value work such as equipment fleet management and maintenance, or customer service."

He added that funds are available to help organisations adopt new technology, so that the cost is not passed on to consumers.

Yesterday, the media was given a demonstration of technologies such as smart bins and autonomous cleaning robots used at Changi Airport Group, one of the first adopters of technology.

Professor Teo Eng Kiong, chairman of CGH's medical board, called the collaboration a significant milestone for the hospital.

"(We) are pleased to partner NEA to identify challenges in this area, develop solutions and innovations fuelled by technology that will enhance patient safety, reduce infection and allow staff to carry out their meaningful work in a safer, smoother and easier manner," he said.

Mr Masagos added that NEA will push for wider adoption of outcome-based contracts, where contracts are not specified based on the number of cleaners needed, but on outcomes that cleaners need to achieve.

Mr Frank Ngoh, general manager of Tampines Town Council, said this will give cleaning firms more freedom to come up with creative ways to meet expected outcomes.

Environmental Management Association of Singapore president Milton Ng said just 10 per cent of cleaning contracts are outcome-based now and "the major challenge is changing the mindset of service providers and service buyers".

Yesterday, a new $45 million Closing The Waste Loop research fund was also launched to boost research and development in areas such as recovery of materials from waste streams. Another $10.8 million was pumped into a new Environmental Robotics Programme to develop robots to clean public spaces, and to collect, transport, sort and dispose of waste, for instance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Industry road map could bring robot cleaners to life'. Print Edition | Subscribe