March 21, 2023

BGSU Acquires Autonomous Floor-Cleaning Robots

BOWLING GREEN — Bowling Green State University’s Eric Heilmeier wheeled his floor cleaner up to a second-floor hallway, scanned a QR code, and then stood back.

In seconds, the knee-height device seemed to come to life, its blue lights beaming and small scrub brushes spinning, as it wheeled itself along the hallway’s corners to clean the route pre-programmed into it.

Mr. Heilmeier, BGSU’s director of campus services, could have walked away and left the new Cobi 18 robot to its own devices. Instead, he opted to walk over and stand in its path. Without missing a beat, the robot’s lights briefly switched from blue to orange before simply going around him.

The newest addition to Central Hall’s cleaning crew, nicknamed “Scrubby” by students in Central Hall’s School of Nursing area, is one of three of BGSU’s new autonomous floor-cleaning robots leased from company ICE Cobotics. With their addition, Mr. Heilmeier said they’ll assist custodial staff in performing more of the mundane work and leave his staff more time to carry out other tasks in the buildings.

“Our staff starts the equipment, stops the equipment, and creates and teaches and trains the routes for it,” he said. “So it’s a ‘co-bot.’ It’s not running on its own. It really and truly is an assistant to our staff so we’re able to do more and literally cover more ground by utilizing this.”

Mr. Heilmeier and BGSU officials didn’t immediately provide the exact terms of the three-year lease with ICE Cobotics but did say the cost is about $15 per day, per robot. That would be $45 a day total, meaning if staff used the robot every day of the year, it would come to $16,425, or $5,475 per robot.

Scrubby and the other two Cobi 18 machines are just the latest editions to BGSU’s use of autonomous robots on campus. The school started in 2020 with a fleet of 30 small food-delivering robots from the company Starship Technologies. Since then, university officials have acquired autonomous robots for carpet cleaning, lawn mowing, and painting ball fields.

Mike DeBoer, president of ICE Cobotics of North America, which has offices in Holland, Mich. and Zeeland, Mich. as well as in Europe, Africa, and China, said autonomous robot products have taken off since about 2016. Technology changes have allowed the products to continuously evolve to where customers can more easily program and leave the machines to perform tasks, he added.

The pandemic has also played a role, he said, as companies look for ways to ensure their facilities are cleaned while still staying efficient with their employees’ time.

“People are cleaning more surfaces today than what they ever have, and yet there's not any more [resources] necessarily,” Mr. DeBoer said.

Organizations can't always necessarily extend their budget in order to do more cleaning, he said.

“So they're looking at ways that they can do it more efficiently,” Mr. DeBoer said. “If we can do that autonomously, it frees that employee up to do other things so that you’re getting more done with the same number of people.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Heilmeier emphasized that the robots do not replace custodial staff on campus. Workers are still needed to start up the robots, wheel them to areas to scan the QR codes so the devices know the pre-programmed routes and replace the machine’s cleaning chemicals.

As of 2023, the robots are not taking over. In fact, any personality they have is from what students provide to them, such as calling the Central Hall bot Scrubby and the one in the student union “Fred” after BGSU’s mascot Freddie Falcon.

And while the cleaning schedules are such that students typically don’t have much contact with the robots, Mr. Heilmeier said anyone interested in open custodial positions can apply at .

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