The founders of Avidbots, graduates of Ontario's University of Waterloo, initially planned to build robots for a task familiar to residents of the north: snow removal.
"While we were doing that, while we doing customer discovery, we realized it was going to be very hard for us to penetrate that market," says cofounder Faizan Sheikh.
Driveway snow removal is a distinct market from parking lot snow removal, which is a distinct market from street snow removal, Sheikh says. And all of those small markets are, naturally, geographically and seasonally limited, and demand can vary drastically from year to year, Sheikh says.
So, the company decided to focus on a more universal problem: keeping the floors of shops and offices clean.
"Cleaning has to be done every night—it has to be done irrespective of whether it’s winter," Sheikh says.
Avidbots has developed prototype autonomous robots that can sweep and scrub floors, using laser mapping technology similar to Google's self-driving cars to build a floor map of a business. Since the robots are Wi-FI enabled, they can communicate with each other to share map data, plan their attack, and share their progress with each other through the network.
Refining the mechanics and navigation algorithms is an iterative process, involving simulation and in-office testing, Sheikh says.
"In robotics, a lot of things are very important: You have to have the mechanics down very well, the electrical design, and you have to have the artificial intelligence," says Sheikh.
The robots should work on a variety of hard surfaces, and Avidbots plans to make them available to buy or rent by the hour. The company plans to charge $6 per hour for scrubbing and $4 for sweeping—less than the U.S. human minimum wage—though Sheikh says he anticipates many companies will reallocate human janitors to more difficult tasks like cleaning bathrooms, not let them go.
"I see this as freeing up human beings to do higher-quality tasks," he says. "If you have robots cleaning floors, then the cleaning guy can do other higher-value tasks like cleaning washrooms, cleaning windows, other complicated things that robots cannot do at the moment."
Of course, as the robots grow more sophisticated, the range of tasks they're qualified for will only grow.
"The future is very exciting," says Sheikh. "It’s sort of what keeps up at night."