Robots in the Real World: News on Savioke, Marble, Knightscope, Fetch

Silicon Valley robotics companies have been moving their inventions into real-world use, and it seemed like a good time to check in with a sampling of them to see how things are going. The take-away: Shifting from the technology development phase into managing the human-robot interface in the real world can bring some interesting results—both delightful and challenging.

Savioke had introduced 15 of its rolling delivery robots into California hotels by the beginning of 2016, when it raised $15 million in a Series A financing round led by Intel Capital. The San Jose-based company has now deployed its Relay robots at 70 hotel sites in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Relay looks something like a sleek designer recycling bin, but “he” (as the company calls him) can also be wrapped to match the decor of his various hotel employers.

At the Rising Star Sports Ranch Resort in Mesquite, Nevada, Relay is decked out in athleisure stripes, and is called “Champ.” (Pictured above.) At the trendy EMC2 hotel in Chicago, Relays deliver toothbrushes or towels to guests’ doors as a tailcoat-wearing butler, named either Leo or Cleo.

Relay also made a debut in November as a sort of production assistant on ABC’s Good Morning America, delivering coffee to the show’s meteorologist. That star turn was part of Savioke’s evolving relationship with the Disney ABC Television Group. Savioke was also chosen to participate in The Walt Disney Company’s accelerator program this year, and it’s exploring collaborations with Walt Disney World resorts and Walt Disney Imagineering.

The functions of the autonomous Relay robot can seem simple: It pinch-hits for human hotel staffers by carrying everything from take-out food and kids’ coloring books to business documents up to guests, who open the bin at the top of the pillar-like bot to take delivery. But the robot is also capable of stopping elevators at the right floor, and navigating hallways crowded with people and suitcases, thanks to its onboard computer linked to a suite of sensors including LIDAR and 3D vision, and both LTE and Wi-Fi connections.

Savioke has also twigged to the fact that people, schooled by sci-fi movies, expect to have relationships with service robots. When a Relay arrives at a guest room door, it calls the room, and when the door opens, the robot opens its bin lid and makes “cute, R2D2-like noises,” CEO Steve Cousins says. The robot can also reinforce the human-machine bond by shimmying in what Cousins calls its “happy dance.”

Aside from making deliveries, a Relay can also handle assignments such as mingling with gaggles of kids in a hotel lobby, Cousins says. Relays have made almost 175,000 deliveries to date. Hotels pay about $2,000 a month for each robot’s service and support.

Savioke is now looking beyond the hospitality industry to possible delivery services at healthcare institutions, manufacturing plants, offices, and high-rise apartment buildings. In addition to hotel customers, it has about 30 other Relay contracts. In mid-2017, the company attracted an investment from healthcare supply chain management company Swisslog Healthcare. The two companies are exploring roles for Relay such as delivering prescription drugs to nurses on hospital wards.

Cousins says Savioke is considering new features it could incorporate into Relays, such as refrigerated bins that could be useful for deliveries of food at hotels as well as drugs in hospitals. Cousins, who is intrigued by the rise of voice interaction devices such as the Amazon Echo, is thinking about Relays that could speak with humans.

But he also sees a need to balance the allure of new technologies with the virtues of Relay’s simplicity. Most of the 100 monthly contracts for Relay robots are at hotels, where turnover is high for employees as well as guests. The delivery robot has to work intuitively for humans from their first encounter with it, he says.

“Nobody ever doesn’t figure out how to work it,” Cousins says.

Marble is one of the adventurous startups that have taken autonomous robotic delivery to the streets. In April, Marble scored a partnership to provide restaurant food delivery service to customers of the take-out app Yelp Eat24, which manages orders from local restaurants. And backed by a $4 million seed financing round led by Eclipse, Marble started rolling out its boxy white robots in the Mission district and the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.

Bent on expansion, the startup lined up a partnership in August with another take-out food order coordinator, DoorDash, which operates in more than 500 U.S. cities, Venturebeat reported.

On its website, Marble describes its machine as “Your friendly neighborhood robot.” But Marble and other street delivery robot companies such as London-based Starship soon faced an uprising by resentful humans, The Guardian reported this week. San Francisco residents have protested against robots rumbling along city sidewalks, allegedly crowding out pedestrians, seniors, and people with disabilities.

The San Francisco board of supervisors recently passed regulations that limit each company to operating no more than three delivery robots; the total from all companies cannot exceed nine. What’s more, the robots are confined to selected industrial neighborhoods where sidewalks are six feet wide. Even then, the robots must have human chaperones.

The human revolt may reflect some of the animosity developing among part of the Bay Area populace against tech companies, whose well-paid employees are driving up housing prices to the point that many long-time residents can’t stay. Some people also fear that new technologies will decimate the job market for humans. According to The Guardian, the activists who spurred San Francisco lawmakers to sideline delivery robots denounced the machines as “aggressively entrepreneurial wet dreams,” and “the future Ubers of the sidewalk.”

Knightscope, a startup that makes security robots, was embroiled in a related conflict when the city of San Francisco ordered the stand-down of its mobile crime surveillance model, which was being used without a city permit by the block-long San Francisco SPCA animal care center in the Mission district, the San Francisco Business Times reported Dec. 8. The SPCA was trying to to deal with car break-ins, discarded hypodermic needles, and tents pitched by homeless people on the sidewalks. Knightscope sent out a tweet in response to stories on the issue: “Contrary to sensationalized reports, we were not brought in to clear area of homeless individuals in SF. Our client has right to protect their property, employees and visitors. SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area.’’

Mountain View, CA-based Knightscope has raised more than $15 million in a mini-IPO facilitated by equity crowdfunding broker-dealer SeedInvest, the security startup announced in September. It makes an array of indoor and outdoor robots that can detect concealed weapons, radiation, license plates, and unusual activities, and report possible crimes to law enforcement agencies. The company is one to watch as cities and nations decide how to regulate the roles of robots in public environments.

—Meanwhile, warehouse and logistics automation company Fetch Robotics this month announced that it has raised $25 million in a Series B financing round led by Sway Ventures. That brings Fetch’s fundraising total to $48 million. Existing investors O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Shasta Ventures, and SB Group US (aka Softbank) also participated.

San Jose-based Fetch’s robots may not have to deal with scampering children or protesting neighbors, but it faces … Next Page »

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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