Plans for more robots, sensors as NEA launches road map to transform cleaning, waste management sectors

SINGAPORE - In the coming years, people might see robots cleaning and disinfecting areas in Changi General Hospital (CGH), or older cleaners donning exoskeletons to give them extra support as they perform their duties.

On property giant City Developments (CDL) premises, toilets might have sensors that track the level of ammonia, and anti-smell tiles at urinal areas, which have a coating that can neutralise the smell of urine.

These are examples of technology trials the National Environment Agency (NEA) is considering piloting on the premises of seven organisations - CGH, Changi Airport Group, CDL, NTUC Club, Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence, Sports Hub and the Esplanade.

On Monday (Dec 11), letters of intent were signed between NEA and the organisations to make the partnership official. This took place at the launch of the Environmental Services Industry Transformation Map (ITM) at Crowne Plaza Changi Airport.

The partnership is called Innovating and Curating Better Automation and Technologies for Environmental Services (Incubate).

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli unveiled a suite of strategies and initiatives for the environmental services sector. The sector comprises more than 78,000 cleaning and waste management professionals and more than 1,700 companies.

The NEA noted that as demand for cleaning and waste management services continues to rise, it will not be sustainable to increase manpower to match the demand.

Hence, the main thrusts of the transformation map are to drive innovation, have greater adoption of technology, upgrade skills, increase the productivity of the workforce, and help companies here realise opportunities overseas, said the NEA.

By 2025, about 30,000 people in the sector will have higher-skilled jobs because of this, it added.

The transformation map is part of a $4.5 billion Industry Transformation Programme launched at the Budget announcement last year. The programme covers 23 industries. As of Monday, 15 of 23 ITMs have been launched,  in areas ranging from food manufacturing to financial services.

Said Mr Masagos: "In the near future, we can see autonomous cleaning equipment having the capability to 'talk' with one another and take the lift to other floors to perform indoor cleaning operations more independently.

"This will free up their human co-workers' time to focus on higher-value work such as equipment fleet management and maintenance, or customer service."

He added that funds are available to help organisations to adopt new technology such that the cost is not passed to consumers.

The media was given a demonstration of the technologies used at Changi Airport Group, one of the first adopters of technology in the environmental services sector. The technologies include smart bins and autonomous cleaning robots.

Professor Teo Eng Kiong, chairman of the medical board at CGH, called the collaboration a "significant milestone" for the hospital.

"(We) are pleased to partner NEA to identify challenges in this area, develop solutions and innovations fuelled by technology that will enhance patient safety, reduce infection and allow staff to carry out their meaningful work in a safer, smoother and easier manner," he said.

Mr Masagos added that the NEA will also be pushing for wider adoption of outcome-based contracts, where contracts are not specified based on the number of cleaners needed, but on outcomes that cleaners need to achieve.

Mr Frank Ngoh, general manager of Tampines Town Council, said this will give cleaning companies more freedom to come up with creative ways to meet the expected outcomes, such as through automation.

President of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore, Mr Milton Ng, said just 10 per cent of cleaning contracts are outcome-based now, and it may take two to five years for the change to happen.
“The major challenge is changing the mindset of service providers and service buyers,” he said.

A new $45 million Closing the Waste Loop research funding was also launched to boost research and development in areas such as the recovery of materials from waste streams.

Another $10.8 million has also been pumped into a new Environmental Robotics Programme to develop robots to clean public spaces, and to collect, transport, sort and dispose of waste, for instance.