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Cleaning robots vacuum the floors at Tokyo Midtown Hibiya

More and more households are buying robotic vacuum cleaners because they effectively lessen the labour of cleaning the home.

Panasonic teamed up with real-estate developer Mitsui Fudosan to apply that technology and know-how to developing a commercial-grade robotic vacuum cleaner that can efficiently clean buildings.

Named the RULO Pro, the resulting product has been introduced in multiple facilities, beginning with Tokyo Midtown Hibiya.

With the labour force shrinking in Japan, the building management industry is faced with a serious shortage of manpower.

The situation is particularly challenging with cleaning work because of its physically intensive nature. In fact, securing the necessary human resources has been a problem for a while.

Moreover, with a construction boom under way to have large facilities and hotels ready for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, there is a fear that the shortage of cleaning staff will only get worse.

Mitsui Fudosan, which has developed numerous office buildings in Tokyo, was searching for a way to “clean building floors that would retain staff and improve the work environment”.

Work started in 2016. At that time, the goal was set on introducing a cleaning robot in Tokyo Midtown Hibiya, scheduled to open in March 2018.

The 35-story building was being designed with a mixture of commercial and office floors. But the robot would not be responsible for cleaning all areas. The RULO Pro would only clean the common areas on office floors.

“Problems encountered with other cleaning robots served as the starting point of development,” said Masaharu Esaki of Mitsui Fudosan.

Eiichi Mitsuishi of Mitsui Fudosan Facilities, continued, “Those robots did not clean along walls, so you had to follow them up with manual cleaning.

“Plus, a lot of time was spent ‘tending to the robots,’ for example, to empty the dust and dirt they had collected. So, we were wanting to solve those issues.”

Panasonic already had a long history developing cleaning robots dating back 34 years to 1985.

In 1993, they introduced a commercial-grade cleaning robot at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and announced a prototype of what would eventually become the world’s first home cleaning robot in 2002.

Backed by that engineering know-how, the “RULO” was released in 2015 and, to this day, is highly rated as a “triangular” home cleaning robot that effectively cleans rooms from corner to corner.

In other words, not a lot of time had passed from the launch of the RULO when Mitsui Fudosan proposed developing the RULO Pro.

As Tamon Tai, who was in charge of development, explained, “We had plans to develop a commercial-grade cleaning robot, but we needed to know what cleaning buildings entailed.

Then, with Mitsui Fudosan coming onboard, the project got rolling as they brought the building cleaning know-how.”

A working building managed by Mitsui Fudosan could be used for verification tests.

As a result, a RULO Pro meeting the demanded professional cleaning needs was completed in 2018.

It incorporated 4 kinds of sensors – laser, infrared, ultrasonic and contact (bumper) – and proprietary SLAM (Simultaneous Localization And Mapping) technology.

 This is a prerequisite for robots to move autonomously as it simultaneously estimates and maps the robot’s location using sensor information.

With this technology, cleaning all the way up against the wall is treated as a single concept. SLAM requires detailed map data of the building, and Mitsui Fudosan provided the details.

Because these preparations were carefully done in advance, dust and dirt were successfully vacuumed all the way up against the wall.

Mr. Tai responded, “Know-how Panasonic has accumulated through the vacuum cleaner business was used to perform dust collection.”

“In particular, technologies used for home products were applied to the rotating parts of brushes and nozzles.

“Brushes were made of a stronger material and shape demanded for commercial-grade cleaning, while sufficient capacity and capability for cleaning both tiles and carpeting with one machine were ensured.”

Speaking about the RULO Pro, Panasonic’s Kazuya Oshima said, “We were also very adamant about the ‘ease of use’ – paper bags for easily disposing of collected dust and dirt, cartridges for quick and easy battery replacement, a handle for carrying, and so forth.

“These features were added out of consideration for cleaning staff who would actually handle the product.”

Since they were put into service, a total of 6 RULO Pros have been cleaning the common hallways on the 24 office floors at Tokyo Midtown Hibiya.

 It takes about 75 minutes to vacuum the 250 m2 on each floor. The robots run between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am when very few people are in the building, but the office floors are never fully empty.

 Therefore, the RULO Pro alerts people to be cautious while cleaning, by way of a warning light and audio message that translates roughly as ‘Cleaning in progress. Watch your step’.

The RULO Pro also has LTE communication capabilities so that it can send a text message to staff when cleaning is done. In the meantime, staff can focus on cleaning the exclusive areas.

The success at Tokyo Midtown Hibiya has inspired other new landmarks in downtown Tokyo like the Nihonbashi Takashimaya Mitsui Building (completed June 2018) and the Nihonbashi Muromachi Mitsui Tower (completed March 31, 2019) to adopt the RULO Pro.

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