By Michael Casolo, Global President, Client Solutions
Mobile security robots are showing up in commercial properties around the world. So far, the total number of robots patrolling buildings is small – probably less than 100 worldwide – but with additional manufacturers rolling out products this year, the stage is set for this trend to take off.
The appeal of security robots stems from a number of factors: they typically cost less to operate than human guards; they never complain, strike or need days off; and they offer special skills that humans don’t possess. Knightscope, a U.S.-based firm that makes security robots for shopping malls, hospitals, and corporate campuses, equip their robots with regular and infrared cameras. These robots can tell the difference between workers and intruders, and can scan up to 300 license plates per minute. Otsaw Digital, a Singapore-based firm, offers an outdoor model that uses LIDAR and ultrasonic sensors and can recognize unattended bags. Cobalt Robotics, another brand, provides a two-way intercom so security personnel can talk with people remotely.
What does this mean to commercial real estate owners and managers? At a minimum, property and facility managers should understand the value and risks of security bots, so they can provide owners with expert advice. And real estate decision-makers should be aware that robots, like any cutting-edge technology, may still have bugs to work out, which could result in negative attention for the building. It’s easy to imagine someone tweeting about a guard “sleeping on the job” if a bot’s battery power were to run out in a crowded lobby.
All eyes (but no hands) on you
What security bots don’t have is weapons, or any way to detain suspects. They’re useful for identifying and recording suspicious activity, but if a situation calls for an aggressive action, robots can only call on their human counterparts to respond. For this reason, Knightsbridge refers to its robots as “autonomous data machines” rather than security guards.
Robots are designed to complement security staff rather than replace them entirely. But their appeal is derived in part from their ability to do certain jobs cheaper and more reliably than people can. Knightsbridge notes that its machines lease for about $7 per hour, substantially less than the cost of a U.S. worker. They don’t take sick days, strike, or complain about long hours (although they do have to recharge their batteries). And in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and parts of Europe where aging populations have resulted in labor shortages, bots are seen as an easy way to fill open positions.
Security and so much more
Security isn’t the only job robots are handling in commercial buildings. Aloft Hotels is using delivery bots for some room service items and Hilton is rolling out a humanoid-looking concierge that answers common questions and uses its artificial intelligence to improve its responses over time. In Singapore, robots are undertaking tasks to complement human receptionists by leading guests to meeting rooms and conveying refreshment orders in hotels and offices. And local cleaning companies such as WIS are deploying robots or autonomous cleaning machine in hotels such as the Fairmont, local universities, and polytechnics.
In the healthcare industry, two Belgian hospitals recently added humanoid robots to their reception desks to not only check people in, but to accompany visitors to the departments they are looking for. Mobile robots can also help us maintain properties more efficiently. Not only are they increasingly being used to conduct industrial inspections on power plant facilities, tanks, vessels and pipes, mobile robots can also clean, polish and even paint hard to reach areas within a building. Although some of these initiatives seem to be driven by the novelty effect rather than to improve service quality or reduce cost, as the robotics field continues to advance, more and more building tasks will likely be handled by mobile machines in the future.
Will work for electricity
As bots take on more human tasks, there is rising concern that workers will increasingly face unemployment. This concern has prompted Microsoft founder Bill Gates and others to suggest that the European Union tax robots as if they were people. The suggestion was rejected as EU leaders view robotics as a net job creator rather than a source of competition.
In the emerging world of self-driving cars and smart buildings, it may be impossible to stop robots from taking over more human tasks at commercial properties. But there’s bound to be some bumps along the way. In mid-July, a security bot at a Washington, D.C. mixed-use complex “drowned” when it fell into an indoor fountain. That’s probably never happened to a human guard; and if it did, passers-by wouldn’t have found it so amusing.
Michael Casolo is the Global President, Client Solutions for the Global Occupier Services team at Cushman & Wakefield.