By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney is taking a page from “The Jetsons” to keep the Health and Sports Center squeaky-clean.
Like Rosie the robot, UNK introduced its own futuristic housekeeper last month.
On the job since Oct. 8, the Minuteman RoboScrub is tasked with cleaning hard-surface floors inside the Health and Sports Center, including Cushing Coliseum and the Wellness Center. The autonomous machine follows preprogrammed routes to navigate the building, and it’s equipped with several cameras and lidar, which measures distance using a laser, allowing it to recognize and avoid obstacles.
“If there’s an unexpected obstruction, it just figures out a way around it,” said Lee McQueen, director of UNK Facilities Management and Planning.
The battery-powered floor scrubber looks like a “normal” model, except it operates without a person in the driver’s seat.
That’s a big plus for the custodial crew responsible for UNK athletic facilities, including Cope Stadium and the Health and Sports Center.
“It really makes a difference in terms of productivity and flexibility,” said Chris Blocher, lead custodian for athletic facilities.
While the RoboScrub is cleaning floors, Blocher and his team can focus on other tasks. The machine also makes it easier to cover for someone on vacation or schedule around a staff vacancy.
“Time and resources are always limited,” said Mark Omtvedt, UNK’s custodial manager. “We’re trying to leverage the people we have as best we can and be as efficient as possible.”
Using an iPad-like screen, staff can program the robotic scrubber to use more or less water and cleaning product based on how dirty the floors are. The machine will send a text message to a staff member’s phone if it needs a refill or encounters a problem.
When it’s done cleaning, a text message is sent and the scrubber returns to its starting location. Because it’s equipped with a squeegee and vacuum, the scrubber doesn’t leave a wet floor behind, reducing the risk for slips and falls.
Like any good employee, the RoboScrub also learns over time through software upgrades, and data reports serve as a performance review.
“It’s not just us guessing,” Blocher said. “There are no rose-colored glasses with the data.”
UNK Facilities Management decided to deploy the robotic scrubber in the Health and Sports Center for a variety of reasons.
The venue hosts a number of high-visibility public events, from volleyball and basketball games to job fairs and commencement, and the wide hallways yield the most square footage of hard-surface floors among campus buildings.
This high-traffic area requires continual attention from the custodial team, according to Omtvedt, who sees additional value in the pilot project as a way to introduce students to new technology and inspire creativity.
Eventually, the new machine will clean all the hallways in the Health and Sports Center, as well as the concourse and gym floors.
If it works well, and produces the expected cost savings, UNK Facilities Management may consider adding automated floor scrubbers in other buildings in the future.
The university took a similar approach this summer when it purchased two robotic mowers for lawn care.
“I think that’s been a successful experiment,” McQueen said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we look at expanding that project.”