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Robots are not moving into retail as quickly as some technology and industry observers expected. Walmart Inc. has ended its contract with Bossa Nova Robotics Inc., according to The Wall Street Journal. Bossa Nova, a spinout of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, had provided autonomous mobile robots to take inventory in Walmart retail stores.
This is a significant reversal from plans announced in January to expand deployments of Bossa Nova’s robots from 500 to 1,000 stores. The company, which has offices in Mountain View, Calif., and Leetsdale, Pa., had also developed a taller, thinner robot to better scan products on more shelves in narrower aisles.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart decided to end its five-year contract with Bossa Nova rather than renew or expand it, said The Wall Street Journal. The retail giant started the program in 2017 but had “found different, sometimes simpler solutions that proved just as useful, said people familiar with the situation,” the WSJ said. These included using human employees for monitoring inventory, which can be a tedious task but requires sophisticated vision for handling exceptions, misplaced items, and obscured labels.
In addition, John Furner, U.S. chief executive at Walmart, was reportedly concerned about shoppers’ perceptions of robots. By contrast, industry observers were bullish on robotics in retail at the National Retail Federation conference in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic affected historically low unemployment and shifted demand from brick-and-mortar stores to online.
Bossa Nova lays off staffers; Walmart continues to use robots
The end of Walmart’s contract with Bossa Nova apparently led the robotics provider to lay off 50% of its staff, said the WSJ. The company, which raised $29 million in July 2018, is seeking other partners for its mobile robots and software, which it said can provide more accurate, up-to-date information about the state of inventory and help with restocking, returns, and supply chain management.
However, Walmart will continue to use other robots, including cleaning robots using the BrainOS autonomy software from Brain Corp. It also tested the Alphabot goods-to-person system for online grocery orders in 2018 and launched the Intelligent Retail Lab in 2019.
Robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) providers must address cost pressures and the technical challenges of deploying and managing fleets of mobile robots and sensors, not to mention interoperability with existing enterprise software and other automation. The accelerating shift to e-commerce order fulfillment has also shaped robotics investments this year.
“I cannot comment on Walmart. However, the pandemic has forced us to streamline our operations and focus on our core technologies,” said Sarjoun Skaff, co-founder and chief technology officer of Bossa Nova Robotics. “We have made stunning advances in AI and robotics.”
“Our retail AI is the industry’s best and works as well on robots as with fixed cameras, and our hardware, autonomy and operations excelled in more than 500 of the world’s most challenging stores,” he told The Robot Report. “With the board’s full support, we continue deploying this technology with our partners in retail and in other fields.”
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