Industrial automation suppliers and users often rely on systems integrators for robot deployment and management. As mobile robots spread throughout manufacturing and supply chain operations, a new class of service providers is emerging to support them. One example is Cognicept Systems Pte. Ltd., which offers “human in the loop” error handling for robots in unstructured environments.
“There was a lot of chaos, as warehouse managers each had their own way of doing things,” said Michael Sayre, co-founder and CEO of Cognicept. “Warehouses here in Singapore are tightly packed, and it would be good if a robot could get help whenever a machine would fail.”
“We built an intervention platform to dial out to a human operator to see what the robot sees and guide it through the scenario,” he told The Robot Report. “We want to eliminate edge-case failures, which can be costly.”
Developing a platform to put a human in the loop
Cognicept’s founders have been methodical in building their approach to managing autonomous mobile robots.
“For the past one-and-a-half to two years, we’ve been developing the software and hardware platform,” explained Sayre. “Before that, I had been working on the idea with a former colleague.”
“We took it to a Singapore incubator, built out the first prototype, and got our first customers in the U.S.,” he recalled. “A lot of companies have been doing this in-house, and everybody is ‘reinventing the wheel’ individually. Rather than putting engineers on customer support, we have a team in Bangalore that’s running on a platform to perform interventions.”
“The middleware that warehouse employ makes our platform easy to integrate. It’s based on ROS [the Robot Operating System], and takes three to five weeks to integrate,” Sayre said. “Proprietary or legacy systems may take a bit longer, depending on the sophistication of the APIs [application programming interfaces].”
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Ideally, most service robot operations don’t require central management, but Cognicept has telerobotic systems and procedures at a “supervised autonomy center” to put a human in the loop for “hybrid intelligence” when needed.
“For mobile robots, the two most common failures are localization failure and motor or safety lockout,” Sayre said. “With localization failure, a robot doesn’t recognize where it is in a dynamic environment because of a static map. We have an operator match up the sensor feedback to a map.”
“With a lockout, if a robot hits a shoe below the lidar level, trips bump sensors, or rolls down a hill — if it moves in a way that’s not expected, it will shut down and needs to be unlocked,” he explained. “In other cases, if it’s tipped, we won’t undo the lockout until we look at all sensor data and alert someone.”
“There are also occasional path-planning failures or a map that has been inappropriately defined,” Sayre said. “No-go zones are sometimes defined in a contradictory way.”
“Most calls about robot failures are handled by junior employees, but more technical issues go through an escalation process to a line manager,” said Sayre. “The line managers have a more technical background and are in charge of five operators. If the problem is not resolvable remotely, then they have a point of contact associated with that device.”
“We have a communication tool to asynchronously talk with a contact, like the front desk at a hotel or a warehouse foreman, depending on the shift and location,” he said. “We identify who should be receiving calls and help.”
“We had a funny event last year: At a wedding, a drunk guy kidnapped a robot,” he recalled. “The camera was swinging back and forth as it was getting dragged down the hallway. We had to call the hotel staff.”
Use cases for a human in the loop
One advantage of services that put a human in the loop is that they free robotics developers to focus on their distinguishing technologies and value-added proposition.
“A lot of startups don’t have support mechanisms in place, so they don’t need to build from scratch,” said Sayre. “Managing operating procedures is Cognicept’s business. It’s not practical for many robotics companies to build their own support business, and it’s a waste of resources to build their own call centers.”
“We’ve been helping Savioke with its hospitality robots for a little over a year,” he noted. “We’re also working with Infinium Robotics, which provides unmanned aerial systems or drones for inventory.”
“Our platform is robot-agnostic,” Sayre added. “We provide a single point of contact and support, and we can see multiple robotics interacting in ways that individual companies can’t do. With two or three unique support providers, it could easily become a blame game.”
What about fears of comparison among suppliers or vendor lock-in among end users? “We’re mindful of the information we release about performance data,” Sayre replied. “We capture all interventions that operators perform, and we can provide the record that can be annotated of failures and how they were resolved to OEMs to enhance their performance.”
“We’re catering more to end users to root out causes of interruptions,” he added.” If you ask an OEM what its biggest problem is, it will say the customer deployed its product wrongly. However, customer sites shouldn’t have to look like a lab, and we want to resolve mismatches between buyers and sellers.”
Cognicept Systems raised a seed round last month led by Sequoia Surge, and it plans to expand to the Middle East and Africa. “We’re working hard right now on regionalization and overcoming language barriers,” Sayre said. “We’re still looking for more funding and software engineers.”
“Depending on the applications, robots don’t fail that often, so we can get a large number supported by a single operator,” he said. “We are looking at other types of robots have reliability problems, such as social robots or picking arms in e-commerce. Humanoid robots could alleviate elder-care labor issues in Japan and elsewhere, but the gap between machine intelligence capability and what’s needed is much wider than for mobile robots. A 1% gap in reliability can be a dealbreaker, which is why you want humans in the loop.”
What about emerging technologies such as 5G networks? “More bandwidth and less latency would make our job easier and expand the use cases we could do. For example, robot arms can have instability if they hunt for positions or are too slow for accurate replication of human movements.”
“We have more customers in the pipeline, and we’re taking on pilots,” said Sayre. “Our development team in Singapore is looking at integrations and interface enhancements, such as representing the environment in a video-game fashion.”