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The robots are coming! The robots are coming! On our sidewalks, in our skies, in our every store… Over the next decade, robots will enter the mainstream of retail.
As countless robots work behind the scenes to stock shelves, serve customers, and deliver products to our doorstep, the speed of retail will accelerate.
These changes are already underway. In this blog, we’ll elaborate on how robots are entering the retail ecosystem.
Let’s dive in.
On August 3rd, 2016, Domino’s Pizza introduced the Domino’s Robotic Unit, or “DRU” for short. The first home delivery pizza robot, the DRU looks like a cross between R2-D2 and an oversized microwave.
LIDAR and GPS sensors help it navigate, while temperature sensors keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Already, it’s been rolled out in ten countries, including New Zealand, France, and Germany, but its August 2016 debut was critical—as it was the first time we’d seen robotic home delivery.
And it won’t be the last.
A dozen or so different delivery bots are fast entering the market. Starship Technologies, for instance, a startup created by Skype founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, has a general-purpose home delivery robot. Right now, the system is an array of cameras and GPS sensors, but upcoming models will include microphones, speakers, and even the ability—via AI-driven natural language processing—to communicate with customers. Since 2016, Starship has already carried out 50,000 deliveries in over 100 cities across 20 countries.
Along similar lines, Nuro—co-founded by Jiajun Zhu, one of the engineers who helped develop Google’s self-driving car—has a miniature self-driving car of its own. Half the size of a sedan, the Nuro looks like a toaster on wheels, except with a mission. This toaster has been designed to carry cargo—about 12 bags of groceries (version 2.0 will carry 20)—which it’s been doing for select Kroger stores since 2018. Domino’s also partnered with Nuro in 2019.
As these delivery bots take to our streets, others are streaking across the sky.
Back in 2016, Amazon came first, announcing Prime Air—the e-commerce giant’s promise of drone delivery in 30 minutes or less. Almost immediately, companies ranging from 7-Eleven and Walmart to Google and Alibaba jumped on the bandwagon.
While critics remain doubtful, the head of the FAA’s drone integration department recently said that drone deliveries may be “a lot closer than […] the skeptics think. [Companies are] getting ready for full-blown operations. We’re processing their applications. I would like to move as quickly as I can.”
While delivery bots start to spare us trips to the store, those who prefer shopping the old-fashioned way—i.e., in person—also have plenty of human-robot interaction in store. In fact, these robotics solutions have been around for a while.
In 2010, SoftBank introduced Pepper, a humanoid robot capable of understanding human emotion. Pepper is cute: 4 feet tall, with a white plastic body, two black eyes, a dark slash of a mouth, and a base shaped like a mermaid’s tail. Across her chest is a touch screen to aid in communication. And there’s been a lot of communication. Pepper’s cuteness is intentional, as it matches its mission: help humans enjoy life as much as possible.
Over 12,000 Peppers have been sold. She serves ice cream in Japan, greets diners at a Pizza Hut in Singapore, and dances with customers at a Palo Alto electronics store. More importantly, Pepper’s got company.
Walmart uses shelf-stocking robots for inventory control. Best Buy uses a robo-cashier, allowing select locations to operate 24-7. And Lowe’s Home Improvement employs the LoweBot—a giant iPad on wheels—to help customers find the items they need while tracking inventory along the way.
Yet the biggest benefit robots provide might be in-warehouse logistics.
In 2012, when Amazon dished out $775 million for Kiva Systems, few could predict that just 6 years later, 45,000 Kiva robots would be deployed at all of their fulfillment centers, helping process a whopping 306 items per second during the Christmas season.
And many other retailers are following suit.
Order jeans from the Gap, and soon they’ll be sorted, packed, and shipped with the help of a Kindred robot. Remember the old arcade game where you picked up teddy bears with a giant claw? That’s Kindred, only her claw picks up T-shirts, pants, and the like, placing them in designated drop-off zones that resemble tiny mailboxes (for further sorting or shipping).
The big deal here is democratization. Kindred’s robot is cheap and easy to deploy, allowing smaller companies to compete with giants like Amazon.
For retailers interested in staying in business, there doesn’t appear to be much choice in the way of robotics.
By 2024, the US minimum wage is projected to be $15 an hour (the House of Representatives has already passed the bill, but the wage hike is meant to unfold gradually between now and 2025), and many consider that number far too low.
Yet, as human labor costs continue to climb, robots won’t just be coming, they’ll be here, there, and everywhere. It’s going to become increasingly difficult for store owners to justify human workers who call in sick, show up late, and can easily get injured. Robots work 24-7. They never take a day off, never need a bathroom break, health insurance, or parental leave.
Going forward, this spells a growing challenge of technological unemployment (a blog topic I will cover in the coming month). But in retail, robotics usher in tremendous benefits for companies and customers alike.
And while professional re-tooling initiatives and the transition of human capital from retail logistics to a booming experience economy take hold, robotic retail interaction and last-mile delivery will fundamentally transform our relationship with commerce.
This blog comes from The Future is Faster Than You Think—my upcoming book, to be released Jan 28th, 2020. To get an early copy and access up to $800 worth of pre-launch giveaways, sign up here!
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Image Credit: Image by imjanuary from Pixabay Continue reading
Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!
This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)
If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.
What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2
The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.
iRobot Roomba s9+
We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.
Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward
Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.
DJI Mavic Mini
It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander
Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.
Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it.
$2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
Neato Botvac D4 Connected
The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.
$530 $350 (sale)
Cubelets Curiosity Set
Photo: Modular Robotics
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.
Photo: Franklin Robotics
Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.
Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.
Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.
RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.
“How to Train Your Robot”
Image: Lawrence Hall of Science
Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.
MIT Mini Cheetah
Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, now available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
DJI’s new Mavic Mini looks like a pretty great drone for US $400 ($500 for a combo with more accessories): It’s tiny, flies for 30 minutes, and will do what you need as far as pictures and video (although not a whole lot more).
DJI seems to have put a bunch of effort into making the drone 249 grams, 1 gram under what’s required for FAA registration. That means you save $5 and a few minutes of your time, but that does not mean you don’t have to follow the FAA’s rules and regulations governing drone use.
[ DJI ]
Don’t panic, but Clearpath and HEBI Robotics have armed the Jackal:
After locking eyes across a crowded room at ICRA 2019, Clearpath Robotics and HEBI Robotics basked in that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with starting a new and exciting relationship. Over a conference hall coffee, they learned that the two companies have many overlapping interests. The most compelling was the realization that customers across a variety of industries are hunting for an elusive true love of their own – a robust but compact robotic platform combined with a long reach manipulator for remote inspection tasks.
After ICRA concluded, Arron Griffiths, Application Engineer at Clearpath, and Matthew Tesch, Software Engineer at HEBI, kept in touch and decided there had been enough magic in the air to warrant further exploration. A couple of months later, Matthew arrived at Clearpath to formally introduce the HEBI’s X-Series Arm to Clearpath’s Jackal UGV. It was love.
[ Clearpath ]
I’m really not a fan of the people-carrying drones, but heavy lift cargo drones seem like a more okay idea.
Volocopter, the pioneer in Urban Air Mobility, presented the demonstrator of its VoloDrone. This marks Volocopters expansion into the logistics, agriculture, infrastructure and public services industry. The VoloDrone is an unmanned, fully electric, heavy-lift utility drone capable of carrying a payload of 200 kg (440 lbs) up to 40 km (25 miles). With a standardized payload attachment, VoloDrone can serve a great variety of purposes from transporting boxes, to liquids, to equipment and beyond. It can be remotely piloted or flown in automated mode on pre-set routes.
[ Volocopter ]
JAY is a mobile service robot that projects a display on the floor and plays sound with its speaker. By playing sounds and videos, it provides visual and audio entertainment in various places such as exhibition halls, airports, hotels, department stores and more.
[ Rainbow Robotics ]
The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Virtual Tunnel Circuit concluded this week—it was the same idea as the physical challenge that took place in August, just with a lot less IRL dirt.
The awards ceremony and team presentations are in this next video, and we’ll have more on this once we get back from IROS.
[ DARPA SubT ]
NASA is sending a mobile robot to the south pole of the Moon to get a close-up view of the location and concentration of water ice in the region and for the first time ever, actually sample the water ice at the same pole where the first woman and next man will land in 2024 under the Artemis program.
About the size of a golf cart, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will roam several miles, using its four science instruments — including a 1-meter drill — to sample various soil environments. Planned for delivery in December 2022, VIPER will collect about 100 days of data that will be used to inform development of the first global water resource maps of the Moon.
[ NASA ]
Happy Halloween from HEBI Robotics!
[ HEBI ]
Happy Halloween from Soft Robotics!
[ Soft Robotics ]
Halloween must be really, really confusing for autonomous cars.
[ Waymo ]
Once a year at Halloween, hardworking JPL engineers put their skills to the test in a highly competitive pumpkin carving contest. The result: A pumpkin gently landed on the Moon, its retrorockets smoldering, while across the room a Nemo-inspired pumpkin explored the sub-surface ocean of Jupiter moon Europa. Suffice to say that when the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory compete in a pumpkin-carving contest, the solar system’s the limit. Take a look at some of the masterpieces from 2019.
Now in its ninth year, the contest gives teams only one hour to carve and decorate their pumpkin though they can prepare non-pumpkin materials – like backgrounds, sound effects and motorized parts – ahead of time.
[ JPL ]
The online autonomous navigation and semantic mapping experiment presented [below] is conducted with the Cassie Blue bipedal robot at the University of Michigan. The sensors attached to the robot include an IMU, a 32-beam LiDAR and an RGB-D camera. The whole online process runs in real-time on a Jetson Xavier and a laptop with an i7 processor.
[ BPL ]
Misty II is now available to anyone who wants one, and she’s on sale for a mere $2900.
[ Misty ]
We leveraged LIDAR-based slam, in conjunction with our specialized relative localization sensor UVDAR to perform a de-centralized, communication-free swarm flight without the units knowing their absolute locations. The swarming and obstacle avoidance control is based on a modified Boids-like algorithm, while the whole swarm is controlled by directing a selected leader unit.
[ MRS ]
The MallARD robot is an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), designed for the monitoring and inspection of wet storage facilities for example spent fuel pools or wet silos. The MallARD is holonomic, uses a LiDAR for localisation and features a robust trajectory tracking controller.
The University of Manchester’s researcher Dr Keir Groves designed and built the autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) for the challenge which came in the top three of the second round in Nov 2017. The MallARD went on to compete in a final 3rd round where it was deployed in a spent fuel pond at a nuclear power plant in Finland by the IAEA, along with two other entries. The MallARD came second overall, in November 2018.
[ RNE ]
I sometimes get the sense that in the robotic grasping and manipulation world, suction cups are kinda seen as cheating at times. But, their nature allows you to do some pretty interesting things.
More clever octopus footage please.
[ CMU ]
A Personal, At-Home Teacher For Playful Learning: From academic topics to child-friendly news bulletins, fun facts and more, Miko 2 is packed with relevant and freshly updated content specially designed by educationists and child-specialists. Your little one won’t even realize they’re learning.
As we point out pretty much every time we post a video like this, keep in mind that you’re seeing a heavily edited version of a hypothetical best case scenario for how this robot can function. And things like “creating a relationship that they can then learn how to form with their peers” is almost certainly overselling things. But at $300 (shipping included), this may be a decent robot as long as your expectations are appropriately calibrated.
[ Miko ]
ICRA 2018 plenary talk by Rodney Brooks: “Robots and People: the Research Challenge.”
[ IEEE RAS ]
ICRA-X 2018 talk by Ron Arkin: “Lethal Autonomous Robots and the Plight of the Noncombatant.”
[ IEEE RAS ]
On the most recent episode of the AI Podcast, Lex Fridman interviews Garry Kasparov.
[ AI Podcast ] Continue reading