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Pandemic boosts demand for cleaning robots in HK malls, offices and hotels

The sight of a cleaning robot quietly going about its business is becoming more common in Hong Kong’s shopping malls, offices and hotels.

The makers of the machines say they offer much-needed confidence to shoppers and hotel guests whose awareness of the importance of impeccable hygiene has been piqued by the pandemic. A recent survey by Ipsos suggested they are correct.

Robots promote public confidence by ensuring disinfection is carried out in a way that does not overwhelm shoppers, said Lewis Ho, chief executive of Avalon SteriTech, part of the Avalon Group, a Hong Kong biomedical company founded in 2013.

“Would you rather see people in white coats showering [disinfectant] or a robot silently disinfecting in a shopping centre? It has now been over a year [since the outbreak started]. People very much want to get rid of this life”, where they are overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Commercial landlords tend to agree.

“We want to pioneer the use of robots to to do sanitisation, cleaning our shopping centers and office space. We look at all kinds of technology that will be applicable to our business and our assets,” said Andrew Young, associate director of innovation at Sino Group. “The pandemic brought about demand from consumers who want something different in light of the changing environment.

“And we find that technology can really bring about changes and speed up the change required [to] improve our operation. But most importantly, also improve life. [For] example using a robot to do cleaning.”

Avalon SteriTech and SoftBank Robotics Group have jointly launched Whiz Gambit, an artificial intelligence-powered cleaning and disinfection robot.

Avalon has some 20 robots working in the trains and stations of Hong Kong’s MTR and some in real estate under Sun Hung Kai Properties, including the Sun Hung Kai Centre, International Finance Centre and several five-star hotels such as The Royal Garden.

An Ipsos survey of 2,100 people in Hong Kong and Singapore in February found that 82% of respondents in the former spent less time visiting local leisure entertainment venues because of the pandemic. The average frequency of visits to shopping malls fell from 11.9 to 4.7 times per month.

It found that 86% of Hong Kong respondents felt confident enough to visit common areas if high-end cleaning and disinfection methods are deployed.

Most Hong Kong respondents (61%) preferred robotic disinfection over manual disinfection.

“We definitely believe it will be an upcoming global trend. Even after the pandemic fades, people’s needs for disinfection and cleaning will increase. In the future, if you fly or go to a hotel or restaurant, you will think about whether it’s really safe,” Ho said.

Avalon has between 100 and 200 robots in use and would like to get several thousand more operating this year. It claims its robots can clean parts that are difficult for humans to reach, using particles that are more effective in disinfection but less harmful to people and the environment. A robot costs about HK$10,000 (RM5,307) a month to rent or HK$200,000 (RM106,158) to purchase outright.

“This is not a world-saving cancer drug, but it is very practical and timely” as it can ease people’s worries when they go out for a meal, shopping or for a walk, said Manson Fok, chairman and co-founder of Avalon Biomedical, the parent company. Fok is a member of the late prominent tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung’s family.

As the pandemic has sped up the adoption of service robots, the cost of renting one is likely to fall, making them affordable for the mass market and boosting their prevalence in the coming five years, said Rhaime Kim, chief operating officer at Rice Robotics.

New World Development has even invested in Rice Robotics and said in March it would order an extra 60 robots from the company for properties like K11 Musea, its shopping centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Kim said the accelerated use of cleaning robots is a sign that proptech (property technology) is becoming more commonplace in Hong Kong. – South China Morning Post

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