Shape-shifting robots may help clean hawker centres

Created by SUTD team, they can disassemble and reassemble themselves into many shapes

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Experiments using a prototype show that the robot, which uses infra-red and bumper sensors, can reach 95 per cent of the spaces it was programmed to clean. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Local scientists are developing shape-shifting robots that can sweep and vacuum your favourite hawker centre on their own, in a multimillion-dollar project.

Each robot will be made up of at least four square blocks that can disassemble and reassemble themselves into different shapes to clean different areas.

The prototype is a robot with four blocks. A robot with four blocks can be configured into seven shapes, while one with six can be assembled into 35, said its creators from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

The effort is a timely one, and will help free up workers in the sector for higher-skilled jobs, say experts. As demand for cleaning and waste management services continues to rise, it will not be sustainable to grow manpower to match demand.

Hence, the push to drive innovation, have greater adoption of technology, upgrade skills, and increase the productivity of the workforce, among other things.

The SUTD team received $4.7 million in August from the Government to develop the robot, named hTetro after the popular brick game Tetris, and other cleaning robots over the next two years.

The money, which comes from the National Robotics Programme, will partly be used to set up a new laboratory and to hire about 20 researchers.

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The design for hTetro was conceived over three years ago. Experiments using a prototype show that the robot, which uses infra-red and bumper sensors, can reach 95 per cent of the spaces it was programmed to clean, said lead researcher Mohan Rajesh Elara from SUTD. In comparison, a circular-shaped robot used in tests covered only 40 per cent of the area it was supposed to clean, he added.

Dr Mohan wants to give the shape-shifting robots the ability to attach themselves to each other as well. That way, multiple robots can be assembled to sweep and vacuum larger areas more efficiently, and then disassembled to get into narrow spaces.

"The robot will also be developed to have the ability to take microscopic images of dust to assess how clean an area is, and equipped with sensors that can be used to detect gas emitted by microorganisms," said Dr Mohan.

The earlier edition of hTetro received the Singapore Good Design Mark last year, given out by the Design Business Chamber Singapore (DBCS) to award good design and quality in products and services. DBCS is calling for entries for next year's round of awards till Dec 29.

Dr Mohan and his team are also developing sTetro, a robot that can vacuum and sweep staircases autonomously, as well as tarantula, a robot that can inspect drains for blockages.

The robots have been given the thumbs up by hawker centre patrons such as designer Melody Ho, 47. "Anything that can give our cleaner uncles and aunties a helping hand sounds like a good idea," she said.

Taxi driver Richard Tan, 55, agreed: "It's a good way to make things easier for the cleaners who are usually quite old. But the robots must be good at avoiding people or they will hitting our feet all the time."

The robots will likely hit the market in about five years, but working prototypes that can be used in field trials will be ready in two years. SUTD plans to license the technology to local companies to commercialise the robots.

Mr Milton Ng, president of Environmental Management Association of Singapore, stressed the importance of test-bedding new technology to identify teething issues.

"Autonomous cleaning robots must have good enough sensors that allow them to avoid obstacles, and they must have a long battery life," said Mr Ng, who is managing director of Ramky Cleantech Services.

"Hawker centres may also require more heavy duty cleaning to get rid of stains. These robots that focus on picking up debris might still need to go hand in hand with cleaners or other robots."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline Shape-shifting robots may help clean hawker centres. Subscribe