British Columbia

Floor-cleaning robots just the start, says Vancouver company

A&K Robotics was founded by three UBC graduates in 2015 and has developed a technology that turns conventional floor cleaning machines into self-driving robots.

A&K Robotics has developed a device that transforms floor-cleaning machines into self-driving robots

A robotic floor scrubber powered by A&K Robotics follows a preset path in UBC’s Life Sciences Centre. (UBC)

A Vancouver company founded by three University of British Columbia graduates has developed a technology that transforms conventional floor cleaning machines into self-driving robots which suck up grime and polish the floors in two buildings on UBC's campus.

Eventually, its owners say they hope to make robots a part of everyday life.

"Today marks the beginning of a new future," said  Anson Kung, co-founder of A&K Robotics on Friday at a news event at UBC to demonstrate the technology.

"A future where robots will become as commonplace as the phones in our pockets, a future where robots and people will work hand in hand to increase productivity, safety and most important of all, our quality of life."

'When we first started almost four years ago, we had a vision to change the world,' says A&K Robotics Anson Kung. 'We knew that robotics was the next big thing that was going to change the world.' (CBC)

Kung, 25, founded A&K Robotics in 2015 with Matthew Anderson and Jessica Yip with the goal of expanding the robotics industry in Vancouver. They now employ more than 20 people and have sold the technology to UBC, the Vancouver International Airport and customers in the U.S. and Europe.

"We are trying to make the best technology and we are competing head on against big American companies that have a lot more resources, much bigger sales and marketing teams than us," said Yip, who graduated from UBC in 2014 with an English literature degree.

What separates A&K Robotics from other companies, according to Yip and Kung, is that their technology attaches to floor cleaning machines used by custodians and is easy to operate. It costs around $10,000 for the most basic technology A&K offers to attach to floor cleaners.

The automation module developed by A&K Robotics is mounted on top of an automatic floor cleaner to create the robotic floor scrubber. (UBC)

"It's super intuitive," said Yip. Even someone with an arts degree like her can learn to use it, she joked. The machines are programmed to move around a space on their own and avoid people and objects.

Watch one of the machines in action:

A&K Robotics floor cleaner now roaming UBC

3 years ago
School graduates launched the company in 2014 in the hopes of growing the robotics industry in Vancouver. 0:39

UBC Building Operations partnered with the company to help with the trial for the technology with its custodian staff. Two of the robotic floor cleaners are already in use at UBC's Henry Angus and Life Sciences buildings, with five set to be in place by November.

Does it make jobs redundant?

As robots, self-driving cars and other artificial intelligence technologies continue to advance, there is a worry they will make some jobs redundant.

A 2016 study from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Toronto's Ryerson University estimated 42 per cent of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of being replaced by technology and computers.

But A&K Robotics says its technology enhances the workplace for humans. It allows custodians to focus on other tasks rather than pushing floor cleaners for hours along hallways. Some machines weigh up to 386 kilograms, according to UBC.

"It's a common misconception that robots take away jobs because in the custodial industry, custodians have a scope of work that's very big and they only have so much time," said Kung.

CUPE local 116 says the school discussed the use of the robots with it and was told that their use would not result in job losses or have an impact on hiring.

The president of the local, Dave Lance, says the union will keep talking with its members about their experiences as the additional robots are put in place.

Other applications

The company now plans to apply the technology to electric wheelchairs to help people with disabilities get around.

Kung says the company hopes to attract local professionals who wish to stay in Vancouver.

"We have some of the smartest people in Vancouver in Canada and they work amazingly hard to make this happen, together we're here to change the world," he said.


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