February 22, 2022
By Keith Shaw
As more companies look to deploy autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to help with mobile tasks, the challenges of making them easier to use for end users and less expensive will continue to keep companies looking for the right solution.
Robotics World recently spoke with Josh Baylin (right), vice president of product and marketing at Brain Corp., about the latest advances in autonomy, the future of multi-task robots and multi-robot deployments, and the need for interoperability.
Robotics-World: How would you describe the state of autonomy within the mobile robot space? What are some of the challenges that still remain for AMRs?
Baylin: Innovation is rampant, new ideas and form factors are everywhere, and what robots are capable of doing is quickly growing. In our view, the biggest challenge is twofold: how do you make an advanced technology system extremely easy for end users to utilize, and how do you build a robotic product with focus and intention so it’s practically affordable and accessible to customers to make an impact for them.
For businesses and leaders to get the most value out of deploying a robotics program, they need to be able to use the infrastructure and resources they already have in place. This means that robots should not require any costly environmental changes, and staff – even non-technical ones – should be able to easily adopt and utilize the robots. What we often see though is that because robotics is such a complex field, many companies cannot simplify their advanced systems for non-technical people. This is a differentiator for Brain, as we use an intuitive touchscreen interface and teaching methodologies that allows anyone to teach and then run autonomous routes.
Second, robots must serve a purpose for end customers and be built so they are proficient and cost effective so businesses can afford and see ROI from their robots. It is fairly easy to put together a robot with the most advanced sensors covering the machine, but what is not easy is doing this in a way that is not exorbitantly expensive that it makes the machines unaffordable, and therefore useless.
While the autonomy of robots may appear to be equal, in most cases robots are only as good as what they previously encountered, which gives them the confidence to make decisions quickly. As sensor technology continues to improve, this will make the performance of robots even stronger.
R-W: Brain recently announced an inventory scanning attachment that can be placed on a robotic floor scrubber to allow customers (in retail/grocery specifically) to gain data about out-of-stock items and also being able to clean the floor. Does this work simultaneously, or does it have to perform one task (such as the inventory scan) and then the floor cleaning separately?
Baylin: The machine handles each task separately. The real value here is the ability to leverage existing equipment. For our forward-looking retail customers, what this means is when you make an investment into robotic floor cleaners, you’re also starting a path that makes the future investment in new robotic capabilities that can be added to existing machines, like inventory scanning, quicker and more seamless.
R-W: Is this a feature that customers have been asking for? Or is it a case where you figured out that it could be done to have customers avoid having to purchase two robots for two different tasks?
Baylin: What our customers want is ROI, and inventory data is a huge part of that ROI. While the machines do not simultaneously clean and scan, the fact that they do serve multiple purposes and tackle multiple critical operations autonomously for retailers is huge.
While companies may initially deploy robots to clean floors, sensors and attachments could eventually have them perform additional tasks, such as scanning inventory, sensing gas leaks or even providing mobile security tasks.
R-W: Do you see the AMR space heading in this direction, where a single mobile robot can perform multiple tasks for a company, depending on the types of attachments used? For example, we think that additional sensors could be placed on a robot that could provide security surveillance, or chemical detection / gas emission detection, or even spill-detection in retail environments.
Baylin: Absolutely. If you think about it, robots are mobile IoT platforms that can sense and share critical information with retailers and other facilities. These types of robots make up our “Sense” product category, and is the pinnacle of a business’s automation journey. What we are doing is transforming our robotic machines, like autonomous scrubbers, into data collecting platforms, creating machines that revolutionize how companies gain insights and interact with their manual operations and physical environments.
We expect to see more use cases of customers wanting to add more sensors to their robots. The data that the robot is collecting will drive insights, which drive actions within businesses.
R-W: If such a multi-purpose robot can be developed, will there be a market for it?
Baylin: One hundred percent. Delivering new insights that turn into actions is incredibly beneficial to our end customers.
R-W: What do you think about interoperability efforts, such as those from MassRobotics and other organizations, in terms of working on standards that allow different robot types to communicate with each other?
Baylin: This is a critical piece to deploying a smart, holistic and future-proof robotics strategy. Companies risk getting stuck with multi-vendor complexities if they don’t plan a holistic, platform-based approach that cuts across multiple robot applications, and is built around intelligence, security, and data collection. We are excited that others are recognizing the value and need for this level of thinking.
R-W: What has been the biggest obstacle for customers in their robotics and automation journey? Do customers tell you what might be holding them back from committing to a deployment? Is it the cost, training, complexity, or not knowing where to begin or what to automate?
Baylin: As with any new technology, no matter how many benefits or how much ROI it offers, you run into obstacles related to process changes. That is why it is critical that companies have the expertise and scale for helping customers work through the initial roadblocks and help them quickly deploy and see the value of their investment.
Keith Shaw is the managing editor of Robotics World.