René Raaijmakers
15 July

It turns out, cleaning robots suck in data just as well as they suck in mess. This begs the question, just how private and secure are these robots? When China expert Sanne van der Lugt interviewed eight manufacturers, it also became clear to her that Chinese companies have started to outpace Western companies with more advanced and innovative products.

A China expert who is interested in cleaning robots – not an obvious combination. Yet, Sanne van der Lugt immediately dove into the machines as soon as they came her way. In recent years, she had already studied various cases where technological developments disrupted international relations, such as China’s motivation behind its own satellite positioning system and Huawei’s 5G technology that got banned by the US. When her partner came home with the message that his employer was considering selling Chinese cleaning robots in the European market, it immediately rang a bell for her.

“My boyfriend was excited because that robot from the Chinese supplier Gaussian was much more advanced than the other robots he knew,” Van der Lugt recalls. “I immediately thought: wait, China? What kind of sensors are on such a robot? What kind of data does the system collect? Where does it send its data? I saw a story there because my boyfriend emphasized that the Chinese robot was so much more advanced than the robots available on the Dutch market at that time.”

20210603 Sanne van der Lugt RRA_9271
According to Sanne van der Lugt, we shouldn’t be naive by distrusting only China. Data collection by Western companies isn’t necessarily innocent either.

Her partner couldn’t answer all of her questions, but he thought it would be a good plan if his partner delved deeper into it. After all, that information would be useful to him, too.

Knowledge erosion

With numerous sensors such as cameras and lidar, cleaning robots are clear data sponges. Moreover, most act as IoT devices that send their data to the cloud to be able to run algorithms on it. All in all, this poses a potential data security and privacy issue. “Many people immediately associate this with China, but my focus is mainly ‘outside Europe.’ In any case, we have to ask the same questions when it comes to US devices,” Van der Lugt says.

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The results of her scavenger hunt also offer a glimpse into the shifting international technological force field. Cleaning robots show how the center of tech gravity is moving toward the East – something that many Western companies don’t seem to realize yet.

Using the data at her disposal, Van der Lugt concludes that China’s Gaussian stands out in terms of innovation and development strength, although the Europeans are still doing reasonably well. In general, tech companies in China can get funding much more easily than their Western competitors. This immediately translates into much larger development teams. Van der Lugt: “Gaussian has two hundred and fifty robotic engineers; a German company that’s also doing very well has ten.”

Van der Lugt sought funding for her research from government agencies but received no response at all. She then decided to put time into it herself. KPMG’s Marnix Bel offered his help, and in addition, the Institute Clingendael wanted to add its name to the final report, entitled “How smart is the use of smart devices in the office?”

Van der Lugt notes that the lack of interest is symptomatic of the erosion of Dutch knowledge about China. “Twenty, thirty years ago, the Netherlands was still the most important European source of knowledge of modern China. There’s not much left of that. Our think tanks and our universities have eroded. It’s more necessary than ever to generate knowledge about China and to have experts working on fundamental research with a horizon of three to five years.”

Sanne van der Lugt Table 1
All major cleaning machine suppliers are offering a robotic vehicle, or are at least developing one. This table shows the number of models offered by the companies that supported the researchers with information about their current fleet. Source: the KPMG-Clingendael report

Numerous sensors

Van der Lugt made contact with eight suppliers of cleaning robots. All were open to her questions and conditions. It was especially challenging not to compare apples to oranges. “Everyone used different terminology. One said ‘camera’ where he actually meant ‘lidar.’ There was also a big difference in the definition of ‘autonomous driving.’ At the same time, I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the technology, because my readers are policymakers, not technicians. I presented everything in a table. To each manufacturer, I fed back the information they provided and asked if I interpreted well.” After everyone gave their green light, Van der Lugt published the data.

It’s striking that the Chinese are ahead when it comes to functionality. “The robots based on American technology are lagging the most. European robots are already a bit further ahead. Their story was very positive, but when I asked for examples from practice, it turned out that Gaussian was in the lead.”

Van der Lugt also spoke with Brain Corp, the supplier of BrainOS, an operating system that various manufacturers of cleaning robots use. “That software is implemented in cleaning machines that were previously controlled by humans. These machines also have a chair and a steering wheel. This makes it easy to jump on, for example in case of an accident in a supermarket. In fact, Brain Corp started with software for existing cleaning machines. That gives limitations in, for example, the maneuverability of the machines. Starting from scratch, like European and Chinese competitors did, offers advantages, including more compact and maneuverable machines.”

Cleaning robots have numerous sensors such as cameras, lidar and ultrasonic sensors. “I was very surprised by that, especially the fact that some of them have cameras in them. During my research, I found out that cameras aren’t necessary if you use 3D lidar, but some clever people have discovered that if you combine 2D lidar with a camera, you achieve the same result, only cheaper.” BrainOS has opted for the latter. All devices using it have a camera: Tennant and Hako from the US, ICE Robotics from China (which is partly Japanese-owned) and Nilfisk from Denmark.

Diametrically opposed

It surprised Van der Lugt that data security and privacy had little priority. “It wasn’t on people’s radar at all. The suppliers I spoke to said: we don’t get questions about security, you’re the first to bring it up.” Their responses were positive. “They could well imagine that at some point, this would come their way from politics. So they had better start working on it. A cleaning robot like that gets everywhere. It won’t matter that much in the central meeting hall, but they also drive into labs working on the latest technology.”

However, many vendors did pay attention to privacy. “A few brands store the data locally, but Brain Corp takes the position that you can combine camera footage from the robot with information from security cameras or registrations from visitors, for example in a hospital. If you can link that to a vague shadow that you then see on such a camera, you can still establish a relationship with an individual. So Brain Corp says it’s safer if BrainOS collects the raw data and Brain Corp stores it for you. In this case, that means in America. They then share the graphs and interesting information with the customer, so they know where the robot has and hasn’t been. The problem: once that data is stored in America, compliance with the European General Data Protection Regulation is difficult to maintain.”

It is, in fact, the same issue and discussion between Europe and the US about data collected by American companies like Google and Amazon. “Europe should take that into account in its policies. Data collected in Europe should stay in Europe. The complicated part is that the data is indeed stored in Europe but by a non-European company. In the case of US companies, the GDPR by definition offers no protection. The EU says: anything with data stored on European soil is European property and must abide by European law. The American Cloud Act says that the data of any American company must always be available when the US government considers it to be an item of national security interest. That also applies to data stored outside America by American companies. Those two legislations are diametrically opposed and there’s no umbrella body yet that can decide on the matter.”

Sanne van der Lugt Table 2
This table is based on information from interviews with suppliers of the various cleaning robots on offer in the Netherlands. Source: the KPMG-Clingendael report

Different attitude

China’s Gaussian delivers quality and is financially and technologically very capable. Van der Lugt even considers that there’s a chance that there will soon be only Chinese cleaning robots in Europe. “Above all, I want to warn against a major fallacy,” she states. “We think we’re still technologically ahead of Asian countries and that we need to protect our technology so that it doesn’t get stolen, bought or copied. What we’re not prepared for is that there are also companies coming our way with more advanced products according to laws of liberal market forces. Gaussian employs so many robotic engineers that the rivals probably won’t be able to compete in the long run.”

Chinese technology companies also seem to have inexhaustible funding at their disposal. “There’s much more incentive in the US, but especially in China, to invest in these kinds of companies. You see many European startups leaving for America for that reason. There’s more money available there. If we don’t introduce regulations, we can expect our market to be flooded by brands that European companies can no longer compete against. Then you may only be able to choose those more advanced devices where you know the data won’t be stored or handled by a European organization.”

Van der Lugt says the developments require a different attitude. “For a very long time, we’ve promoted liberal market forces all over the world. Such a policy works well when your national companies can compete with the biggest companies in the world. But as soon as you fall behind, you don’t want to open your market to foreign companies at all.”

According to Van der Lugt, it’s in Dutch security interests to support European high-tech companies with the biggest potential to keep them competitive with non-European brands. With a European option, customers have a choice and more control over their data. She also urges companies to develop policies for the use of smart devices within their organization. Finally, she advises labeling and benchmarking the devices. In that way, buyers can identify the ones with higher cybersecurity prerequisites and make more informed decisions.

Van der Lugt argues that we shouldn’t be naive in thinking that data collection by Western companies is harmless. “Edward Snowden has made that clear to us. We have to be aware that we’re now on the eve of that fourth industrial revolution. The agendas of the US and Europe do not necessarily align. We’re not automatically partners. Right now, the cards are being reshuffled and, as in the past, every industrial revolution has its leader. Until now, the leader of each new industrial revolution also became the new world leader.”

Main picture credit: insights.rlist.io