Business

Would you rent a vacuum cleaner for $499 a month?

softbank robot vacuum cleaner Image copyright Softbank

Vacuum cleaning is a chore many people are happy to outsource, but one company is trying to persuade firms to swap an automated service for human cleaners.

Softbank, the Japanese firm behind WeWork and Uber, has launched a self-powered machine, dubbed The Whiz, at a hefty price tag of $499 (£381) a month.

Softbank says its robot is meant to replace "over-worked janitorial teams."

The Whiz is not initially automatic, as a human has to lead it around until it can learn the cleaning route.

It has been developed by Softbank's US robotics arm and Hong Kong-based firm Intelligent Cleaning Equipment.

The three-feet-tall (0.9 metres) vacuum was initially only offered for rent in Japan and Hong Kong.

'Cleaning efficiency'

The machine sends an alert if there is an issue, such as bumping into a wall. After three hours, it can cover 15,000 square feet (1,394 square metres) but then will need a battery change.

Image copyright Softbank
Image caption A person has to teach the Whiz where to go

It also gathers data and produces a report with analytics on dirt levels.

Softbank says in its presentation materials this provides the ability to "actively demonstrate cleaning efficiency to stakeholders".

One UK firm told the BBC they were planning to conduct trials with the robot in hotels around Southampton.

Ellen Gasson, marketing director for Hampshire-based Industrial Cleaning Equipment (a different business from the Hong Kong company), says when they trial the machine in hotels, a cleaner will need to be present to allow the robot into rooms to clean floors.

WeWork rescue

The vacuum cleaner launch comes after tech investor Softbank announced its worst ever financial results, earlier in November.

Softbank reported a £5bn operating loss for the second quarter of 2019, after companies it invested in, Uber and WeWork, suffered poor financial performances.

Image copyright Softbank
Image caption The robot cam navigate around office workers

WeWork, a flexible office space company had to be given a multi-billion dollar rescue package. Its chief executive Adam Neumann, departed and was replaced with Softbank executives.

Despite the negative recent press, some analysts remain positive on Softbank and see the company's stock as undervalued.

"The WeWork debacle has eroded investor confidence but we retain our strong conviction regarding the long-term outlook for the company," said Chris Lane, an analyst at Bernstein in a research note.

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