Small, autonomous, robotic vacuums like Roomba, Botvac and others revolutionized tidying for the average at-home cleaner. Four inventors in Oakland want to do the same with an industrial-scale robotic janitor built to sweep and mop big spaces like malls and airports.
On a recent evening, Discovery Robotics’ inventors gave the boxy, blue, metal prototype a trial run as engineer Naman Kumar looked on. In his hand was a remote garage door opener programmed to start or stop "Scrubba" and its 300-pound heft.
“This is the most important thing in the robot,” Kumar said of the remote. “If there’s an emergency or something, this is the thing that will save everything.”
Initially, Discovery Robotics envisioned making robots that would operate in confined and sometimes dangerous spaces, such as inside fuel trucks. But CEO Kent McElhattan said the technology isn’t quite ready for that project, so it made sense to invest in Scrubba alone.
By using existing technology, like the kind used for a garage door opener and the Xbox Kinect sensor, they are better able to get the product to market quickly, he said. And there’s money to be made by automating the cleaning business.
McElhattan said he and his co-founders looked for big opportunities "in a marketplace that we don’t have to invent a bunch of stuff, where we just sort of reassemble what exists today."
That’s when they hit on the janitorial industry, he said.
Janitorial employees often suffer from musculoskeletal disorders relating to the physical work they do. People mopping eight hours a day develop shoulder, elbow and back problems, he said. McElhattan and his co-founders realized a potential for opportunity.
“Everybody wants to build robots going to the moon, Mars, SpaceX,” McElhattan said. “Cleaning floors is not sexy. We were faced with a decision: Are we going to be a company based on data and facts, or are we going to be some hobbyists that live our dreams out and have a lot of fun and never make any money? We opted for the first. We decided, let’s try to become a real company, create employment.”
Sexy or not, Scrubba could mop up some jobs. When janitor Lewis Johnson learned of the prototype, he said it “spooked him.”
"This is one of the only outlets for a person of my situation, ‘cause I'm of the other side of the tracks and I messed my life up,” Johnson said. “Now that I've seen this machine that probably is capable of doing the same exact things as I do, I see myself as being obsolete."
McElhattan said Discovery Robotics still has a lot of work to do before it could be much of a threat to jobs. The company just fielded an independent review that estimated it would take three years to get from where they are to where they want to be.
"We were hoping for one,” he said.
Still, improvements are coming. Inventors said they hope to improve the machine's speed and appearance without inflating its $20,000 price tag. It might not sound as exciting as going to the moon, he said, but that could be a market advantage.
“The lack of sexiness is going to keep competitors out,” McElhattan said. “They’re going to have conversations and say ‘I don’t want to do that. I want to build the autonomous car.’”
This is McElhattan’s second foray in the startup world and a continuation of his interest in worker safety. In 1985, he launched Robinson-based Industrial Scientific, now presided over by McElhattan's son, that provides portable gas detection equipment and services. It now makes a “couple hundred million dollars in annual sales,” he said.
Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland provided the breeding ground for Discovery Robotics. McElhattan and three men from his congregation invested their own money; Industrial Scientific put up the other half of the cash.