Is there more to the future of housework than robot vacuum cleaners? 

Are cleaning robots as fantastical as flying cars, or are they closer than we think? Spoiler alert – don’t ditch your duster just yet.

Enjoying a clean home is usually a short-lived moment of pleasure. As soon as we’ve achieved the show-home shine, someone comes along and destroys our efforts. It’s a frustration that makes us wish we never had to clean again. But what can relieve us of our chores other than another human? What is the future of cleaning?

With the help of Dr Ian Pearson, a futurologist and co-author of several reports examining the future of cleaning, we look ahead to see if we can expect anything better than a robot vacuum cleaner to take the challenge out of chores. 

Will cleaning robots be a part of our future?Credit: Shutterstock/Besjunior
Will cleaning robots be a part of our future?

1. Cleaning robots

Could android butlers turn from fiction to fantasy?

In reports such as Life More Automated and The Future of Home Appliances in a Fast Changing World, we see descriptions of AI (artificial intelligence) butlers who can be personalised with customisable skins. It leads us to question how far away we are from this world, or if it’s just a sci-fi dream. 

Believe what you read from companies such as Dyson and it would appear robots are already in development. A short video prepared for the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in 2022 by Dyson’s chief engineer, Jake Dyson, outlines how the company is looking for more than 700 engineers to work on advanced robotics to help with household chores.

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Citing a “robot brain” as one of the key areas of development, Dyson tells viewers the company is looking at ways of developing “the vision systems, how the robot is interpreting the environment through sensors, cameras, thermal imaging being able to map humans and navigate through the world”. 

Elon Musk is also planning his own version 

It comes as no surprise to know that Tesla is on a similar journey and the company revealed its own robot, the Tesla Bot, in September 2021.

Presented to the world as a humanoid robot that could be used for cooking meals and helping people, the somewhat cumbersome automaton needs more development before becoming user-friendly.

A recent upgraded version – Optimus Gen 2 – includes new hands  that enable it to execute intricate tasks such as preparing eggs. The robot’s latest iteration was presented at Tesla’s Artificial Intelligence Day event on Monday and can function 30% faster than its precursor.

As Tesla experts point out, the main issue for robots is that the home environment changes frequently. Robots thrive on structure, patterns and routine. Household tasks are usually performed by humans who can adapt to changes in the environment through sight, touch and sound. Developing a robot that has the same ability to sense and adapt to household change will be the challenge. 

Musk remains confident the Tesla Bot will launch, predicting it will cost less than a car, at around $20,000 (£16,300). 

They’re entertaining but not yet practical

When we ask Pearson for his thoughts on the availability of home robots and the future of cleaning, he is enthusiastic but realistic.

“Robots are a fun area, but one that I feel is still some way off being practically available on the domestic market,” he says. 

“I used to joke in after-dinner speeches about the tiny robots that may eventually crawl around our floor, picking up small bits of debris. But, given that stepping on one would be like stepping on a piece of Lego in bare feet, the reality is they aren’t something that could be used during the daytime in a busy household – only when people were out or sleeping. 

“I think robotics will certainly have a purpose and role in the future,” he says, “but for now, I think we are some way off them being a widespread product.” 

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2. Harnessing the power of UV

Good for larger areas and great potential for domestic use

Pearson believes some of the answers to how we clean in the future may come from certain methods that companies are investigating in larger spaces. 

“In hospitals, for example,” says Pearson, “while the main surfaces of floors and walls are cleaned, there’s often little scope for cleaning everywhere. 

“One of the things you could do would be to implement the sanitising power of UV light in areas such as lifts. Using simple PIR [passive infrared] sensors to detect when the lift is empty, UV lights could automatically switch on and sterilise the whole lift quickly and easily between uses, without requiring any manpower or chemicals. 

“There’s no reason why this couldn’t extend into the home environment,” Pearson says. “UV lights could be added to kitchens and bathrooms to remove bacteria when the rooms are empty.” 

Adding ultrasound to UV could make more powerful vacuum cleaners

There are also quick and easy ways we could improve existing cleaning equipment, suggests Pearson. 

“Vacuums, for example, could have UV and ultrasonic elements added. UV would sterilise and ultrasound would vibrate to clear more dust and dirt from carpets. It’s the same technology as we have in electric toothbrush cleaners, so could be adapted for floors.” 

In line with the current trend for cleaning with a conscience, Pearson reminds us of the fact that even nature can help. Sunlight, with its UV properties, is a very good and free disinfectant. 

This all sounds relatively simple, so why haven’t we seen it happen? 

Pearson explains how the issue with any light is that it emits in a straight line. That’s fine for fitting lights to ceilings to target the walls and floor, but doesn’t provide a solution to tackling fixtures and fittings. Cleaning underneath and around items or in awkward areas would be problematic. 

Until the powers of UV become reality, we’ve taken a look at the best cordless vacuum cleaners on the market and have some great tips on how to clean your vacuum. 

3. Domestic drones with added extras

Small in size but potentially powerful

Pearson is keen to talk about what he believes to be the solution for utilising UV – domestic drones. 

“It would be easy enough to map out the route for a small drone (think the size of the ones children get as Christmas presents), incorporating surfaces, under cupboards, around sinks and toilets and then set them to work.

“The AI technology we have already would deal with this easily,” says Pearson. “It’s minimal AI compared to what’s out there already. UV lights already exist. It would be a relatively cheap and easy product to create – all you need is an entrepreneur to come along and do it.

“I would be surprised,” Pearson adds, “if in the next five to 10 years, it isn’t something that’s available on the domestic market.” 

4. Battling bacteria with biology

It’s not a new method, but is growing in strength

When we ask about the work he is doing right now that may influence the future of cleaning, Pearson explains how he has been speaking to companies about biological development.

In much the same way our bodies produce good bacteria to battle bad bacteria, there are ways of applying biology to cleaning. 

It’s not something entirely new – but is a method that has grown over time to good effect. 

“Years ago, washing powders didn’t have biological powers to remove dirt. Now they do,” says Pearson. “I believe there are more ways of applying biology to help dissolve dirt. It’s the same process as when you use a probiotic liquid spray – it dissolves the dirt. 

“Biofilms on surfaces are a constant problem,” he says. “Tiles, patios, surfaces all get stuff growing on them. Using biology to remove dirt is a way to avoid using chemicals.” 

The advantage of bio-led sprays? They will not only kill any bacteria already on there, but also prevent future growth of biofilms. But it doesn’t need to stop there.

“If manufacturers could find a way of incorporating biology into the way they make the surface materials,” Pearson adds, “it could mean things stay bacterially clean.  

“All we would need to do is remove dust and dirt that naturally gather around the home. There would be no build-up of grease that required harder labour to remove it.” 

Keen to keep your cleaning natural? Check out our ways to clean sustainably. 

5. Anti-bacterial coatings and materials

We already use them but may not realise it

Pearson points out that there are already secret cleaning methods built into products that we don’t even notice.

Silver, for example, is used in the construction of fridge shelves, which is why we don’t need to clean them every day. When bacteria lands on the shelves, the silver naturally kills it. It may now be considered a relatively old-fashioned method, but is one that still works today.

Companies such as luxury home appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel are also big advocates of improving products at the manufacturing stage. As well as fridges with anti-microbials impregnated into the plastic liners and seals of their fridge freezers to prevent the growth of bacteria, they also produce a self-cleaning washing machine.

It works by directing a portion of the rinse water over the door to clean hair and insoluble matter from the inside and surrounding parts. The anti-fungal door gasket of the machine is also impregnated with anti-microbials, which reduce the growth of black mould. The gasket flush cycle also helps keep the seal free of dirt and lint, and the drawer for the detergent has similar anti-microbials. 

Laundry seems to be a key area of development, with steam-care wardrobe systems that are somewhat futuristic in design already available to buy.

With the appearance of a standard wardrobe, they allow users to simply pop their clothes on hangers and place them inside the system for a refresh. LG’s Styler and Samsung’s Air Dresser are just two examples. Although they’re not yet automated, it’s easy to see how they could be. 

If you’re not yet in the market for a new washing machine, read our easy fivestep guide to keeping it clean. 

6. Low-to-zero maintenance robot vacuums

They could soon be self-cleaning to save us the job

Mention robotic cleaning and it’s likely the first thing that springs to mind is robot vacuums. The popularity of these has risen since they came to market in the early 1990s, with many now an integral part of a home, even boasting their own nicknames. 

Several of these models mop as well as vacuum, although for either job they are best used when the house is empty to ensure they clean thoroughly without interruption. 

Unfortunately, the fact that they clean dirt means they still need to be cleaned themselves. You could argue that in using them, we simply replace one job with another. 

Nick Grey, founder of Gtech and inventor of the cordless vacuum, believes they will soon have a solution to this in the form of zero-maintenance vacuums:

“It will simply be a case of using them and then emptying them, with no filters or brush bars to keep clean – the appliance will clean itself. We expect this type of self-cleaning vacuum to be available from early 2024.

“Looking ahead,” Grey adds, “it is realistic to expect there will soon be cordless vacuums that do not require any mains charging at all. Instead, they would be powered by a solar-charged battery pack, which could be left on an inside window ledge and charged in daylight.” 

7. Air purifiers

Cleaning with a conscience 

The growing trend for cleaning with one eye on environmental matters has also prompted companies to consider how their products can clean but remain safe for the user and environment. Air purifiers are one such example. 

We spoke to Phillip Bone, country manager at DH Lifelabs, an air purifier company, to discuss its future plans. He confirms that in support of findings from software company Khoros that reveal 82% of shoppers want brands to embrace sustainable practices, the company remains committed to protecting the environment. 

If you’re wondering how air purifiers work, Bone explains how they “generate a natural cleaning solution and disinfectant using just water and salt that effectively removes mould from walls and cleans the air and household surfaces – removing 99.9% of airborne mould, bacteria, and viruses”. 

The added benefit – potential cost savings. 

“These one-time-use cleaning products also add up,” says Bone, “so it could be more cost-effective to invest in reusable longer-term solutions that will help keep your home protected and clean for years to come.” 

Can clever home design assist cleaning?

It depends how minimal you want your home to be

With more than 1,900 inventions to his name, including the creation of text messaging, Pearson is no stranger to design in all its forms. We asked him how he thinks home design could be used to relieve cleaning pressures.

His answer was both practical and insightful. Pearson believes even the trend for minimalist house design doesn’t really solve the problem. Space, clutter and life in general seem to be the main issues we may never change. 

“The problem with advancements in cleaning,” he says, “is that any surface that is large and has no clutter is relatively easy to clean. But do you want your home to look like the sterile environment you see in hospitals and large office blocks?

“Large, tiled floors, or expanses of engineered wood floors that are easier to clean than carpet, also still need some element of carpets, cushions and curtains in them to absorb sound. 

“It’s the clutter that makes it your home,” adds Pearson. “Books, ornaments, accessories – all the things that identify you but equally provide places for dirt to hide. They are your home. 

“Even drones that could navigate around all these items would biologically clean them, but still couldn’t remove the dust particles,” he adds. “No matter how sophisticated tech becomes, the way we live and the items we have in our homes mean we will still have to remove dust from surfaces and pick up items to clean underneath them.

Could decluttering be on the cards?

Keen to make your home more streamlined without losing the special touches that make it yours? There are a number of decluttering methods that could help. From decluttering the Marie Kondo way to the art of städning or the newest trend for home hushing, making a conscious decision to curate your home doesn’t mean you have to live in a monasterial building. 

Will spring cleaning ever be a thing of the past?

Don’t put your mop away just yet

In short, it seems we can sometimes get a bit carried away with how quickly life will change, but there are certainly changes ahead. 

“It’s impossible to predict anything beyond the next 20-50 years,” says Pearson. “Anything else is really guesswork, which is fun, but not necessarily fact. 

“Tech is advancing in the world,” Pearson continues, “but maybe not at the pace we once thought. Not so long ago, 3D TV was due to be something we all wanted and had in our homes. After a few years, it became a fad. VR has great scope and opportunity, but for now is still a novelty. 

“Cleaning tech may be great for open surfaces with no clutter, but for most of us at home, for now, we’ll still need to do what we’ve done for centuries.” 

While robots with superhuman strength could do all the lifting and decluttering for us, we are still some way from those being a reality. Plus we’d need at least a spare £25,000 to splash out on a cleaning buddy if that is our ultimate aim. 

It’s probably fair to say that for now we are safe from robot-inhabited homes, but there is no denying the technological progress to reduce dirt. It’s a welcome fact for those of us aged 55 and over who, according to data analysts Statista, spend on average four hours and 17 minutes cleaning our homes each week. 

Will the virtual world provide a solution?

The development of virtual technology could also make us question if we will even need to clean. If the metaverse truly takes off and we live our lives through augmented reality, will homes as we know them be needed? 

“The metaverse is something I’ve been lecturing on for 30 years,” says Pearson, “and has the potential to be big. But ideas and tech are not always aligned. 

“Maybe when my two new inventions – active contact lenses and active skin – have come to market, allowing us to see and touch everything virtually,” says Pearson, “then we will truly see the benefits of a virtual world. But for now that’s still some time away.”

Final words of advice

“We have to be careful,” says Pearson, “that in moving towards an easytoclean world, we don’t create a home that is unbearable to live in. The trade-off for creating easytoclean homes is acoustics and aesthetics, both of which make our homes more interesting and bring us joy. Quality of life and easytoclean are not necessarily the same thing.”

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Sarah Harley

Written by Sarah Harley she/her

Updated:

Since first picking up a paintbrush and experiencing the joy of re-decorating her bedroom in a questionable red, white and grey scheme as a young teenager, Sarah Harley was hooked on the world of interior design. This obsession even led to a real life ‘Grand Designs’ project in 2005 when she donned a pink hard hat and appeared on TV screens, project managing the renovation and extension of a Grade II listed 17th century Folly in South Wales.

Throughout her career, Sarah has gained an array of experience in several different roles, ranging from copywriting, PR, events management and photography to interior design and home staging. With her two passions being the written word and the joys of a beautifully designed home, Sarah’s mission is to open the door on the world of interiors, inviting readers in to help them work their way through the vast choice of products, ideas and trends so that their own homes can reach their full potential.

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