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Meet the robots working to disinfect your office

Fetch Robotics and CEO Melonee Wise are deploying new disinfection robots to make the reopening amid the pandemic safer.

Meet the robots working to disinfect your office

Fetch Robotics' new SmartGuardUV robot.

Photo: Courtesy of Fetch Robotics

As companies aim to reopen amid the pandemic, keeping workers safe is every businesses' primary concern. Fetch Robotics, a 6-year-old logistics automation company, thinks that robots may be part of the solution.

On Thursday, Fetch Robotics announced a new autonomous robot designed to disinfect high-trafficked spaces within offices and warehouses. The company said its SmartGuardUV robot can be run remotely to eliminate up to 99.9% of viruses and bacteria with broad-spectrum ultraviolet light disinfection. The announcement comes soon after Fetch's unveiling of Breezy One, a different kind of robot tackling cleaning spaces with a disinfectant fog.

In an interview with Protocol, co-founder and CEO Melonee Wise detailed how Fetch Robotics developed both disinfection robots, the strategies they're employing to keep people working safely and the company's plans to build on the technology long after the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fetch Robotics has primarily been focused on robots for warehouses to date. As the pandemic was sweeping the nation, was there a moment where you realized you needed to shift strategy?

I think it just accelerated some of our longer-term strategy. Once the shelter-in-place happened, we saw this big branching between our customers: customers that were considered essential and customers that weren't. The last couple of months, we picked up pet care and electronics [companies] for people who were buying laptops and caring for their pets. But on the flip side of that, we also saw a downturn for certain industries like automotive.

We had always had a plan of making [our] system more of a platform for people to build new solutions on, and we had had some partners doing that already. I think we started seeing more companies approaching us for disinfection solutions. And one of things that became very apparent was that these are the needs for this type of situation. So we actually made a small hardware change to our robot to support the six or seven partners that we're now working with on disinfection solutions for different verticals and different types of disinfection.

I would say that we're adding more to the software sooner than we thought we were going to. We thought that this longer-term platform play was probably a year or two out. We had been starting to get some initial interest from people wanting to put their own custom things on robots for hotels, health care, etc., but there wasn't this huge ramping demand. With COVID, suddenly everyone wanted to attach something with a disinfection capability or to [use robots] enable social distancing.

We're seeing a lot of different changes in the types of customers right now, and we're reacting to that as fast as we can. We are seeing more medical companies, more ecommerce, more electronics and pet care. And some of the bigger, more traditional industrial or manufacturing partners are slowing down because of the challenges with the economy right now.

How did you approach creating and deploying a disinfection robot? Was the technology something already in the works before the pandemic?

All of our base technology works very well with supporting what people want to do with autonomous disinfection. There are a couple of big advantages to our technology just to start: One of the reasons that we have not been as impacted by COVID is we've had the ability since COVID started to deploy robots remotely. So we can pack them up and ship them to a customer. They'll take it out of a box and connect it to Wi-Fi, and it just works because all of our stuff is in the cloud. That is one of the stronger bases for why a lot of partners are coming to us because it's really easy. In this environment, no one wants you to come onsite.

So partners started coming to us, and they had either some fogging mechanism or some UV light that they thought would work really well. And then we help them figure out how to attach it to the robot. But a lot of the tech that we had for autonomously driving around people or driving into small areas already existed. We have a full toolset that we've made because we were very focused on making it fast to deploy before any of this happened. In the manufacturing and logistics industries, typically a time to deploy automation technology was three to nine months, and we took it down to less than three days.

The big changes that we made to the product were to support higher-power [accessories] because UV lights are very power hungry, and we had to change the hardware. But overall that's about all we had to do. We also added some finer controls, so [partners] could turn the power on and off, but most of the software is the same, whether it's a disinfection application or a manufacturing or logistics application.

We have a large customer base already, so as we bring on these partners, some of them are complementary. We have the fogging partner that fogs with a disinfection chemical, and then we also have a UV partner that has a flashing Xenon light. And those two are very complementary because you can fog at night and then continuously disinfect conference rooms throughout the day.

How did you go about making a hardware change in the middle of everything that was happening to supply chains globally?

The hardware change was relatively well-contained, and we had good partners that could do that. A lot of it was custom, so we had control over the whole supply chain. It wasn't like we had to go out and order something from China. It's made in the United States, so we just fabricated it here. That's one of the nice things about our product: A large portion comes from the United States, so it's easy to support and make.

I think one of the more challenging things is we were pretty selective in the partners that we've been working with. And one of the lights that is used for the UV robot is pretty hard to source because the state of New York bought thousands of them. But they've been able to secure that supply chain as well. It's definitely been interesting pulling it all together and just trying to help our partners scale as fast as possible because there's huge demand. I don't see this going away anytime soon.

The SmartGuardUV robot on its lunch break.Photo: Courtesy of Fetch Robotics

One of your robots is being used in Albuquerque's airport. Did an unconventional space like an airport — compared to the office structures you typically operate in — prove challenging?

Build With Robots [a robotics integration company] is the partner we worked with, and then they've been deploying with [the] Albuquerque airport and a couple other locations. It's going really well. The janitorial staff at Albuquerque is very pleased with the robot. They don't have to spend a lot of time around those dangerous chemicals. The robot's friendly, and it's easy to use for them.

One of the nice things about the airport and a lot of public spaces is they're all actually governed by the American disability act. So they all are relatively controlled in terms of some of the features like the ground levelness, because there are other people that need access with limited capabilities. You can, in many ways, think of a robot as a device with limited capabilities. So we try to use the ADA requirements of a building as somewhat of a basis for the capabilities of the robot. And so it makes it easier for us to go into those spaces because of it. So the biggest challenges that we have are actually older buildings that don't conform to ADA requirements.

How are you thinking about the staying power of these disinfection robots after the pandemic?

Airports have always been a massive hot spot for transmission of infectious diseases. And if you look at the chemical they use for fogging with a Breezy One, it can eliminate everything from common colds and flus to anthrax. In large commercial spaces, I think it will have staying power. I personally would love it, and I'm excited for it because I travel so much, and I swear every second time I get on an airplane, I get sick.

I think that you're going to see staying power in shared workspaces as well. In coworking spaces, I think that people are going to demand these kinds of features that bring them extra safety and health benefits. I don't know about individual businesses and whether they're going to have the same motivation, but I think that in any shared space or public space, there's just going to be a public health concern and a push to offer these assurances.

No robotics or automation interview is complete without a question about the impacts on jobs — was that a consideration as you began building these solutions?

It's not really a factor, but if anything, these robots will definitely create more jobs because they'll put people back to work because they can be in the buildings again. If you look at what we've been doing since COVID started, we've actually been enabling businesses to stay open and keep people at work. So if anything, we've been the basis for keeping the economy going. We have customers who basically had to shift from one shift to three shifts in a day just to be able to support social distancing, and the robots have really supported that. People don't have to go from one person to another. The robot can do that because we're flexible.

[In many cases] the robots' routes through buildings were totally changed to support that. If you imagine how a fulfillment center typically looks, you have people packed in right next to each other, but you can't do that right now. If you look at how it's done in a lot of facilities, they just have a conveyor, but during COVID without robots, you can't just pick up the conveyor and move it and have all the people separated. With robots, you can.

I think that flexibility shows, in general, that robots don't take jobs. If you look at our entire customer base over the last six years, as far as we know, no one has laid anyone off to deploy a robot. Typically they've hired more people. Most of the time our robots have been brought in to support business growth, not to save money.

With all that's going on, how does the rest of your year, and next year look for Fetch?

Some companies are now coming out of their hibernation, so a lot of our second-half plans are related to customers who know that they now need to automate and have to accelerate plans drastically. We're working with a lot of customers right now on plans for deploying larger systems to support the new normal.

We're very focused on helping with disinfection solutions, bringing them to market, and then leveraging the relationships that we have with our investors or getting into airports or other large commercial spaces or shared working spaces with those disinfection solutions. Some of it is getting into these other verticals.

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