“I do not expect Covid-19 to disappear. It will remain with humankind and become endemic,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during a national address yesterday.

The pandemic has already made huge demands on the environmental services industry, which consists of cleaning, waste and pest management. But for life to carry on with the virus, a new level of public hygiene is required.

Tech can help the industry cope with labour shortages and improve the way it works, says Dalson Chung, Director of the Industry Development and Promotion Division at the National Environment Agency (NEA). He discusses how it’s adopting robots and upskilling workers to cater to the increased demand for cleaning.

Adopting cutting-edge technology

The agency is trialling driverless road-sweeping vehicles during off-peak hours and weekends at three areas in Singapore. They can help to ease workers’ daily workload, improve the desirability of their work and manage manpower constraints, Chung says. Road cleaning can also be completed at night, reducing traffic congestion in the day.

Two prototypes are being tested. One is fully electric which produces zero carbon emissions and reduces ambient noise, while the other can save up to 60 per cent more water than conventional road sweepers, The Straits Times reported.

To ensure safety, vehicles will have a driver onboard who can take over immediately if required. The pilots will run until July.

Image by NEA

NEA is also rolling out grants to encourage companies to adopt tech. The Productivity Solutions Grant aims to help companies increase their productivity and upskill the workforce, Chung says.

The agency is providing more funding, and as of 4 April, about S$36 million (US$27.2 million) of the grant has been committed.

Partnerships to encourage innovation

NEA has rolled out the INCUBATE programme to identify and tackle challenges faced by the industry with technology. It currently has 21 partners on board, and 46 trials have been conducted, Chung says.

The National University of Singapore is one of the partners in the programme. It uses ozone water instead of strong chemicals to sanitise surfaces and places, said the University’s Senior Director of Operations and Management in an NEA video. This is odourless and poses less risk to the environment and cleaners.

Another partner, the HeartBeat@Bedok community hub has a multi-purpose robot that cleans, scrubs, broadcasts safe-distancing messages, and reports unattended bags. Cleaners are freed up to focus on wiping down high-contact touch points such as door handles.

The premise also has bins equipped with sensors that alert cleaners when they’re about to be full. This reduces the need for cleaners to constantly check the bins, its Assistant Director of Corporate Services said in an NEA video.

Upskilling talent

NEA will continue building a “skilled and resilient workforce” by tapping on tech and robotics, Chung says. Workers can then take on higher value tasks, from operating robots to analysing data to improve cleaning efficiency.

The agency is working closely with the industry to attract the younger generation to join the workforce. The NEA-Industry Scholarship aims to groom students from the Institute of Technical Education and polytechnics, Chung says.

The scholarship allowed students to enroll in a wide range of courses, including environmental science, robotics and biotechnology. The first batch of scholars were awarded this January.

He hopes this will change the image of the sector “from one that is low-skilled to one that is highly-skilled, productive and resilient”.

To upskill existing workers, NEA has partnered with the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore to conduct digital workshops for elderly workers in the environmental services sector.

“We will continue to work with partner agencies to champion initiatives to attract and retain local talent, upskill the workforce and accelerate technology adoption,” Chung says.

The demand for cleaning services will only increase as Singapore prepares to live with the pandemic. Transforming the industry with tech and training workers will prepare the industry for this demand.