Meet Neo, the floor-scrubbing robot

Neo the robot
CC BY 2.0 Neo at the Eaton Centre/ Lloyd Alter

It's like a giant fifty-thousand buck Roomba.

Walking through Toronto's Eaton Centre after class recently, I was confronted with a robot, methodically cleaning the floor. Or I should say, I confronted it, to see what it would do; it politely stopped and just waited until I moved.

After tweeting about it, journalist John Barber pointed me to an article published in Forbes that morning about Avidbots. The robot is made in Kitchener, Ontario, and is named Neo in homage to another famous robotic Canadian, Keanu Reeves, who played Neo in the Matrix. Amy Feldman describes How Two Young Immigrant Entrepreneurs Created Oven-Sized Roombas To Chase A $5B Opportunity – robot cleaners.

Neo up closeNeo at the Eaton Centre/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The two young co-founders of Avidbots, Faizan Sheikh and Pablo Molina, both 31, met at the University of Waterloo. Feldman writes:

After college, they wanted to start a robotics company, but Sheikh needed to get a job because of his obligations, as the eldest son, to help support his family financially. He moved to Ottawa to work as a software engineer at Bridgewater Systems (subsequently acquired by Amdocs). Molina moved there as well to work on a lunar rover project funded by the Canadian space agency, and subsequently enrolled in graduate school at Ottawa’s Carlton University. “One day Pablo came to me, and he said, ‘Faizan, with all the advances that are happening in robotics research, I think now is the time for something to be commercialized, for something to take off, and let’s work on it together,’” Sheikh recalls.

They originally wanted to build a snow-shovelling robot, which would be very useful in Canada, but it's seasonal work. So they switched to indoor cleaning. Five years later, they have robots cleaning floors in 14 countries. GDI, the company that owns the robot shown here, says it frees workers from doing basic things like pushing a floor scrubber to concentrate on more complex tasks. They also note that it is hard to find people willing to do this all day.

Neo from behindNeo at the Eaton Centre/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It was interesting to watch Neo in action. It was heading straight toward this woman coming down the stairs and, when she got to the bottom one, stopped and didn't know what to do. Neo backed up, turned left, and moved out of her way. She smiled and continued. Let's hope that they are always so polite and accommodating.

Here on TreeHugger, we are often skeptical of high-tech robotic technologies, from self-driving cars to 3D-printed houses. On the other hand, we have a dishwasher in our kitchen because some tasks are boring and repetitive and machines can do it better. Scrubbing floors may just be the start. Feldman concludes with a quote: “By putting robots into the real world, we are changing the perception around robots,” Sheikh says. “That lends itself to really cool possibilities.”

Just two 31-year-old Pakistani and Ecuadorian immigrants starting their own little business, working away, scrubbing floors.

Meet Neo, the floor-scrubbing robot
It's like a giant fifty-thousand buck Roomba.

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