Demand for robots to clean or move materials has never been higher, but developers and suppliers should understand exactly how and where they can add value. Brain Corp, which provides autonomy to mobile robots, and Savioke Inc., whose robots serve hotels and hospitals, have experience in addressing real-world needs.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, retailers and hospitals have become keenly aware of the need to protect and retain human workers. By using robots to relieve employees of tedium, sites can deploy people to high value-added tasks and reduce their exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Brain Corp has partnered with Savioke to develop a shelf-scanning robot that it demonstrated at the National Retail Federation trade show in January. The robot is designed to look for out-of-stock or out-of-place items, as well as to ensure that price tags are visible and accurate. It is also intended to provide retailers with more timely data than from a weekly scan by employees.
Brain Corp and Savioke grow partnership
Phil Duffy, vice president of innovation and product at Brain Corp, and Steve Cousins, founder and CEO of Savioke, recently spoke with The Robot Report about their partnership and the ongoing evolution of service robots.
“As Savioke has scaled up and moved from hospitality into hospitals, Brain enables us to have a secure, locked-down operating system with BrainOS,” said Cousins. “We didn’t want to reinvent that, and it goes with Brain Corps’ philosophy as a layer to serve the industry.”
“Savioke initially developed ‘soup to nuts’ technology to quickly get where we are. We then identified where there were gaps and where Brain could help us. It suggested pieces of technology,” he said. “We’ve put together teams that meet regularly to execute.”
San Diego-based Brain Corp invested in San Jose, Calif.-based Savioke in 2018. Brain has also worked with other companies around the world to add autonomy to mobile robots for cleaning and inventory. Walmart is a notable customer. Savioke has worked with Swisslog to bring robots into hospitals.
“It’s not just how to build a robot. There are various other elements, such as technologies to help companies manufacture, include security, and scale,” Duffy said. “Brain Corp has connections with the retail channel for floor cleaning and inventory shelf scanning.”
Identifying use cases for robots, data
Brain Corps’ partnerships with Savioke and other companies demonstrates how mobile robots can serve the Internet of Things (IoT), claimed the executives. Savioke uses a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model, and data as a service is not far behind.
“That’s where Brain Corp thinks robotics is going — we add sensors to increase capabilities, whether the primary function is vacuuming or delivery,” said Duffy. “We want to look at lights-out operations or the occupancy level of a WeWork office. Robots can provide secondary checks for temperature or noise interference. With smart buildings, the technology is put in during construction but is harder to replace.”
“That’s the problem with the concept of mobile IoT — everyone’s trying to monitor everything,” he added. “First, question if cross-functional data is useful. We’re exploring a lot of interest from potential partners, and all robotics companies will start looking, not just at sensing, but also at taking data and doing something useful with it.”
“The hardest thing working in robotics is coming up with the use case,” noted Cousins. “What can new technology do reliably, and what’s actually worth doing? Vacuuming turned out to be a relatively easy application — iRobot gets credit for coming up with that. Brain found the answer of cleaning big buildings, and we found that delivery in hotels was a use case where customers can get value. In the retail space, the problem and solution has to be evaluated and be better than what’s already available.”
“A lot of robotics companies have come up with interesting products but haven’t calculated the returns on investment,” added Duffy. “For instance, while solved navigation in complex environments indoors, but what happens outdoors? There’s a real advantage to the network effects of robots — once we have 360 million sq. ft. of maps and 100,000 autonomous hours, we can run algorithms against that and constantly update them.”
Always more to work on
As robots become more common in public spaces such as hotels, hospitals, and airports, there is still room for improvement, noted Duffy and Cousins.
“We’ve looked at other capabilities where Savioke and Brain Corp are close to parity and may switch in the future,” said Cousins. “As robots get to the point where they can be deployed in different locations, they need to be able to perceive the world in real time and more reliably get information about what’s going on.”
“Right now, robots can avoid bumping into things, but they’re not always sure where they are,” he said. “Also, if they can distinguish between a person and a suitcase in a hotel, they can behave smarter.”
“Unlike other products that can be developed in a lab, we need to see robots function in the real world,” said Duffy. “You can process information with sensors, but robots will see things they’ve never seen before. Getting robots to market early is essential to fine-tuning. With an MVP approach, startups can get the cheapest product to market and upgrade continually as the schedule allows.”
Mobile manipulation to come to service robots — eventually
“It’s definitely coming, particularly for e-commerce. IAM Robotics is a good example. There’s interest, but a lot of manipulation is not yet reliable,” said Duffy. “Adding a robot arm to a base running BrainOS is interesting. It may not happen soon, but we’re keeping an eye on the space.”
“We built the PR2 at Willow Garage with two arms and a mobile base,” recalled Cousins. “For six years, researchers mostly made it navigate with its arms crossed and had its arms work when it was stationary at a table. The idea of people using two arms and two legs doesn’t mean that robots have to have the same configuration.”
“Robotics developers should look at the problems they’re trying to solve,” he added. “If you put an arm on a robot in a human-occupied space, it has enormous safety implications. For pick and place in the warehouse, why not put it on a rail?”
“If you look at the evolution of robotics in the industrial space, from AGVs [automatic guided vehicles] to AMRs [autonomous mobile robots] in closed environments,” Duffy said. “Arms are now in the same phase, moving from industrial to lightweight. They may eventually make it to the service space, but that’s several years away.”
5G and service robots
How are emerging 5G networks affecting robotics development? “It’s an improvement in communications because of more bandwidth and reliability,” replied Cousins. “We’re looking at it, but we don’t expect any earth-shattering changes. We can’t just develop for 5G — coverage needs to be consistent. The customer doesn’t care who would be at fault, the telecommunications provider or the robot supplier.”
“5G is great for non-safety-critical activities,” said Duffy. “You don’t want to use it for navigating a 5,000-lb. robot. Onboard processing is still key to many robotic functions, including safety. It could be useful for checking the planogram for missing goods, but not in our pure day-to-day navigation.”
Savioke, Brain Corp remain optimistic
Brain Corp reported record sales last year, and despite the global economic slowdown, “it’s still a really exciting time,” said Duffy. “The robotics industry is moving forward, and Brain OS’s security is part of the evolving software stack. As companies grow, they need to focus on the manufacturability and quality of hardware components. Brain can help with security and fleet management.”
“Brain Corp hasn’t just solved navigation; it provides a whole suite of technologies to scale with companies,” Cousins added. “Today, we have 10,000 robots deployed or about to be deployed, and Brain has worked with its partners to overcome many of the problems with scaling.”
Duffy said that he’s looking forward to seeing more robots for delivery, and the urgency of the current crisis should accelerate their development. One of Bran Corps’ partners, Tenant Co., has provided cleaning robots to Wuhan, China, he said.