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Applying AI to city cleaning services: Inside China’s Startups

Zero Carbon System believes the streets of the future will be sweeped by AI-powered robots.

The street sweeper model. Source: Zero Carbon System

Street cleaning services are essential for city management, as they prevent trash from building up while keeping neighborhoods tidy and clean. However, it is a strenuous job that requires a large workforce, and could be optimized with the help of technology.

This is what architect Chen Shuo wanted to address when his company, Zero Carbon System, developed an artificial intelligence (AI)-based driverless street sweeper. First produced in 2019, the firm’s cleaner machine, equipped with a camera and powered by an AI processor, is able to automatically clean streets while recognizing different types of trash, including plastic bottles, glass bottles, and litter. This way, the machine can also separate the waste according to the trash type, Chen told KrASIA.

Street cleaning services present an ideal opportunity for AI technology, as a single vehicle can replace eight to 10 human cleaners, according to Chen. Also, since cleaning work is similar across the world, this product could be applied globally without needing major localization, Chen believes.

Around the world, more than 500 million people are engaged in jobs related to cleaning, he explained, while the domestic market size for cleaning services in China could hit RMB 350 billion by the end of this year, according to market research firm AskCI Consulting. 

Currently, Zero Carbon System already counts the government of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, as a key client, and is courting cleaning service providers, building management companies, and government organizations for its AI street sweeper machines. In Jiangsu, the firm established a fleet of 200 vehicles under a pilot operation, Chen said.

Chen Shuo was also the director of the London ZED (Zero Energy Development) Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010. Source: Zero Carbon System

From low carbon architecture to AI

Shanghai-headquartered Zero Carbon System did not initially focus on AI when it was first founded in 2010. Chen, who studied architecture at Cambridge University, was passionate about applying low-carbon solutions to reduce environmental pollution.

“We founded Zero Carbon System with the aim to help the world to fight against global climate change and environmental pollution, by adopting cutting-edge technologies to lower carbon emissions to zero. This is something I wanted to devote my career for, through my whole life,” Chen told KrASIA.

With that goal in mind, Chen and his team completed many low-carbon district planning project. For example, his company built a low-carbon resort at Tunchang Muse Lake in Hainan province, where the company applied water conservation, new energy utilization, ecological farming, and waste utilization to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Zero Carbon System has also built a series of low-carbon buildings, including a photovoltaic equipment inspection center in Shanghai for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and a low-carbon exhibition center for real estate developer Vanke.

However, Chen started to realize that low-carbon building planning was not enough for him to achieve his goal of helping people live in better city environments, he said. “Although the architecture projects we were previously working on could bring us revenues of hundreds of million of yuan, it could probably just change the life of one group of people.”

He turned to AI to fulfill his vision.

“By applying AI to environmental protection and urban planning, our products can reach more people and change their everyday lives. We believe the more we are able to offer, the more significant changes our technology and products can bring to society as a whole.”

Chen and his team established a business division dedicated to AI within Zero Carbon System three years ago and started developing their self-driving AI-based street sweeper.

Opportunities amid the coronavirus

When the novel coronavirus outbreak occurred at the beginning of the year, Zero Carbon System unveiled a new AI-based infrared temperature testing product, dubbed Firetinas. Launched in February, the tool can identify people with fevers in high-density public areas, such as airports, subway stations, and schools, Chen says.

The Firetinas device. Source: Zero Carbon System

Using AI-powered computing chips and software, Firetinas can detect the body temperatures of up to 100 people at the same time, and identify those who might have elevated body temperatures, with a recognition error of ± 0.1° C, Chen claims.

The device has been already adopted by several institutions, including Ruijin Kangfu Hospital in Shanghai and the government of Guangling district in Yangzhou, Jiangsu.

“We hope to apply our experience developing Firetinas to overseas markets, to help countries and regions outside of China, including South Korea, Japan, Europe, and the US, to combat the novel coronavirus, which has become severe around the world in recent days,” Chen said.

AI tech to explore the marine environment 

In 2016, Zero Carbon System completed an undisclosed Series A round from Alibaba’s online equity crowdfunding platform Antsdaq, and Ge Bin, former executive of Sequoia China.

However, Chen didn’t want to rely anymore on fundraising after shifting the company’s focus to AI-based solutions, since he believes that self-driving technologies targeting the cleaning services market are able to generate revenue and become self-sustainable.

Monetization and profitability are crucial elements for an AI-focused startup-like Zero Carbon System, which now employs over 100 people, Chen said. To continue growing, he wants to keep discovering potential opportunities emerging from the market, and combine new products with appropriate sales strategies.

Chen says that his company is already profitable, after generating revenues of “hundreds of million of yuan” by selling the street sweeper and the Firetinas devices.

In the future, Zero Carbon System plans to focus on developing AI-based products to explore the marine environment, and self-driving solution to apply on ships, while the firm will also devote half of their effort to work on low-carbon architectural projects, Chen said, without disclosing additional details.

When it comes to applying AI and other technology to boost business, the only challenge for entrepreneurs is to actually realize the potential of novel technologies, and not waste these opportunities to make a difference, he added.

“If your business is unable to adapt to the latest technologies and eventually fails to survive, you will be the only one to blame as the decision-maker for not foreseeing the trend.”

36Kr is KrASIA’s parent company.

This article is part of KrASIA’s “Inside China’s Startups” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in the country.