Listen to this article
I’ve learned to basically ignore the “home robots” hyped each year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). This year is more of the same, except for two new robots from Calif.-based startup Labrador Systems.
Founded in 2017 by robotics veterans Mike Dooley and Nikolai Romanov, Labrador is focusing on a new class of robots: autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for homes. The Labrador Retriever and Caddie robots can be used by anyone, but the company’s target customers are those with mobility issues, including the elderly and people with disabilities.
Retriever and Caddie are designed to carry items around a home, similar to the AMRs we’ve come to know and love in healthcare, logistics and manufacturing environments. “These robots are the extra pair of hands to hold that laundry basket for someone who had a stroke or has rheumatoid arthritis,” Dooley told The Robot Report in a pre-CES briefing.
Both robots have a maximum payload capacity of 25 lbs and can autonomously navigate throughout a home. The Retriever robot has the ability to adjust its height between 25-38 inches. It can also “retrieve” specially designed trays, which can hold up to 10 lbs, off of countertops and tables. The entry-level Caddie robot operates at a fixed height of 30 inches and can’t retrieve items.
Dooley demoed the retrieval system multiple times, but also offered examples of where this would be useful. “If a caregiver or family member is leaving for the day, they can set up prescriptions on a tray that the robot can bring to the person in the morning,” he said. The video below shows the retrieval system at the 30 second mark.
Labrador today also raised an additional $3.1 million in Seed funding. Amazon’s Alexa Fund and iRobot Ventures co-led the round, with SOSV returning and new investors, including Grep VC, joining in. Labrador has raised about $5.1 million since it was founded.
“This is the first time we’ve seen this class of robot developed for the home; until now this level of functionality has been confined to warehouses and other commercial environments,” said Paul Willard, partner at Grep VC. “We’re impressed with how the team is enabling robotics and navigation systems to run on low-cost consumer grade electronics to provide more independence for millions of individuals.”
Autonomous navigation technology
Dooley and Romanov demoed the Retriever for me remotely from an apartment that overlooked Alcatraz Island. Dooley pointed out multiple times that the glass windows and backdrop don’t create ideal lighting conditions for an AMR and autonomous navigation technology. But the system worked flawlessly.
Dooley said the navigation systems fuses algorithms from augmented reality, stereo vision and other sensors. The maps are customized for each home based on user preferences. The system uses a set of “bus stops” (or “waypoints” for developers of commercial mobile robots) to command the robot where to go, such as “kitchen” or “bedroom.” The robots can be controlled in multiple ways, including a smartphone or tablet, smart speaker such as Amazon Alexa, a Bluetooth wireless button (available as an accessory) or via a pre-set schedule.
Dooley said the number of bus stops that can be set up is virtually unlimited. However, he said the company will likely set a limit to keep the user interface clean. “[A bus stop] is minimal data, the map is the important part.”
A key to the autonomous navigation is that it runs on the edge. “Autonomous navigation functions run on the robot’s computers, meaning the robot does not need to connect externally to navigate around the home once it is trained,” Dooley said. “We can set up a resilient system if the power is out. If you have Bluetooth, you can still interface with the robot. And this is important for privacy. We don’t need to stream any video off of the robot.”
The robots feature multiple sensors for obstacle detection and other safety features, including Intel RealSense. Depth sensors scan the floor around the robot, as well as its primary path going forward. Secondary sensors monitor if objects make physical contact with the robot on any side. With an adjustable height, the robots also monitor the loads on the upper and lower decks. All models will also feature cliff sensors for detecting and avoiding stairs and drops.
Labrador is debuting the Retriever during CES at the Venetian Expo in booth #52049. The company has opened early reservations for a $250 deposit, which it said is fully refundable. It is aiming for both robots to be in full production by the second half of 2023. Both the Caddie and the Retriever will be initially offered through a subscription model.
Labrador said early reservation pricing for Caddie starts at $1,500 upfront and $99 per month for 36 months. Early reservation pricing is a bit higher for Retriever at $1,500 upfront and $149 per month for 36 months.
Labrador said it expects health insurance companies will initially treat its robots as an out-of-pocket expense. However, the company said it is working with organizations now on building the case for coverage for different situations. “That’s a big focus of 2022 pilots.”
Dooley said the company will have enterprise versions of the robots that target commercial environments such as nursing homes or elder care facilities. The robots will have the same core functionality, but have different trim, a different battery, and different communication/backup systems.
Dooley said Labrador conducted initial in-home tests in February 2021. Due to COVID-19, the company was able to teleoperate the robots to map the homes and train them on a user’s bus stops. The pilots saw usage rates of 100-plus times per month. Dooley said the company considers a use as every time the robot is commanded to go somewhere.
“The majority of the beta tests were 5-8 weeks long. We left robots there for a long enough period of time where it became a habit,” he said. “Senior care robots tend to be humanoid and tend to be big. These products are subordinate – we serve people, we’re their helper.”
More than a beer-fetching robot
If you’re in the robotics industry, certainly you’ve seen your fair share of beer-fetching robot demos. Labrador did a similar demo during our meeting. It added two motors to an off-the-shelf refrigerator. It then used the Retriever robot to open the fridge, pull out a tray with food and drink on top, and transport it to another location.
Dooley said Labrador will offer this sort of retrofitted set-up to customers in the future. You can watch a demo of this fridge application in the video above starting at the 1:54 mark.
“Finally someone has made a robot that can actually get you a cold beer,” Dooley joked. That’s not what the mission is here, but people relate to it. We’re doing this in a pragmatic way to bring them their whole meal or medications.”