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Hygiene-obsessed Singapore deploys robots to keep coronavirus away

Labor shortage caused by pandemic drives tech cleaning market

The novel coronavirus has increased demand for cleaning robots. (Photo by Mayuko Tani)

SINGAPORE -- With the spread of the coronavirus making it even more imperative to maintain public facilities spotless, Singapore is turning to robots to get the job done as the pandemic sends home foreign workers who have traditionally filled that role.

At the city state's Alexandra Hospital this month, a sleek robot quietly glided through the halls while scrubbing the floor. Called "Ella," the smart bot cleans hallways and can stop when someone approaches from the opposite direction.

Ella, who can navigate around patients chatting in the hallway with a polite "Excuse me," is a popular figure at the hospital. Some patients even wave at her. 

Ella was developed by LionsBot International, a startup founded in 2018. The company has deployed 40 members of the LeoBot family at locations such as supermarkets and shopping malls. Inquiries from "cleaning service companies and building owners have doubled" since February after the coronavirus outbreak, said John Chan, the company's vice president.

Dubbed "Fine City," Singapore has kept the island impeccably clean by imposing fines for a variety of offenses, from littering to spitting in public. The global outbreak of COVID-19 has increased the need for cleaning even more. The workload for cleaning staff has "surged four- to five-times," says a spokesperson at UEMS Solutions, a cleaning service provider.

Previously, cleaning work had been taken up by low-wage laborers from other parts of Asia. But now that countries in the region and across the globe are shutting borders, securing sufficient labor has become a challenge, forcing cleaning companies to seek a solution in robots.

Getting robotics help will not be cheap, however. One Ella robot costs at least $46,000.

Yet more businesses may consider using robots now that the government is set to amend its law later this year to tighten its sanitation standards. Ahead of this, the government launched a campaign last month to recognize establishments that meet the stricter standards, from stores selling fresh food and restaurants to hotels and schools.

Singapore does not plan to drop its sanitation standards even after the virus outbreak subsides. Soon cleaning robots may be seen everywhere in the city state to keep it squeaky clean. 

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