A Thanksgiving Robot Harvest

The legend describes how the dutch pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in their promised land with their new native friends. This day was later commemorated by John Hanson, President of the United Colonies Continental Congress on March 16, 1776 as Thanksgiving. Yesterday, we were all gathered around bountiful harvests far removed from the farms and the supply-chain that brought us such delicacies. As mentioned in my previous posts, we are headed to a food crisis with the estimated population explosion of 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, which demands creative solutions to continue our annual Thanksgiving feasts.

The German company, Bosch, is not sitting still and has focused its R&D teams around robotic solutions to replace chemicals herbicides. Just this week Bosch announced its latest solution for weed control. Deepfield Robotics (a Bosch Company) has designed a multi-functional robotic weed-terminator called BoniRob. It features a camera and sensors that are trained to identify small weeds is using sophisticated computer vision software to activate a rod that stamps the weeds underground. So far, the bot can punch out 120 weeds per minute with an 80% accuracy.  That’s much better than grandma with a garden shovel!

“For weed treatment, that’s okay because the idea is to run multiple times over the field,” says general manager Amos Albert, general manager. “If it misses the weed one time, maybe next time it recognizes it.”

The robot (below), about the size of a compact car, is relatively small by design, according to Deepfield Robotics.


“Too heavy machines cause undesired soil compaction, and it is difficult to transport them on public roads,” they report. “Furthermore, when using heavy equipment, up to 90% of energy consumption is required for tilling tasks and to repair damages caused by the high soil compaction.”

Bosch has integrated BoniRob into its entire robotic platform. In addition, its four independently steerable drive wheels and the ability to adjust its trackwidth make BoniRob highly maneuverable. BoniRob can be run purely on batteries or connected to a generator to extend its range and usage time. BoniRob can be retrofitted and upgraded with exchangeable application modules (tools). BoniRob can navigate autonomously along plant rows (e.g. dams) in the field, carrying the application module (tool) as it goes.  Environmental sensors (e.g. Lidar), inertial sensors, wheel odometry and (optionally) GPS are mounted for row detection and navigation.

Bosch will conduct additional testing in 2016 before selling commercially, prompting me to wonder when will robots fully replace herbicides?

Autonomous Stockbot

Retail success can be boiled down to two factors, managing people and inventory.  Often these two are intertwined, as without people retailers have zero visibility to their inventory positions in their stores.  Over the past year, we have seen customer service robots roll down the aisles, such as Chloe at BestBuy and OshBOT at Lowe’s.  While these interfaces are cute at best, they have yet to solve a real billion dollar problem…

Earlier this week a new type of retail robot was launched from Simbe Robotics that seeks to address one of the most strategically important (though admittedly boring) aspects of selling physical products on shelves in the 21st century: shelf auditing and product analytics.

“When it comes to the retail industry, shopper experience is everything,” says Brad Bogolea, CEO and Co-founder of Simbe Robotics. “If a product is unavailable at the time the shopper wants to buy it, the retailer has missed an opportunity and disappointed their customer.”

That’s not just some “user experience” mumbo jumbo to move robots. Global retailers lose nearly $450 billion annually as a result of out-of-stock items and empty shelves. 

IT solutions, bolstered by scanner guns and armies of bright-vested minimum wage employees, have been the solution to date, and that goes some of the way toward explaining why brick and mortar stores have taken a beating in the first full flowering of internet retail. The work of auditing shelves, crucial though it is, tends to be repetitive, boring, and never-ending, ingredients that make employees performing those tasks error prone.

Simbe’s solution is a mobile robot that can autonomously maneuver through large brick and mortar retail environments to “capture, report, and analyze the state and availability of merchandise and help ensure compliance with the store’s planogram — the ideal placement of products on shelves in order to maximize sales,” according to a company statement.


Tally stands 38 inches tall, and has an adjustable and modular mast of sensors for capturing shelf data. The overall height is variable, depending on the retailer’s shelf height requirements. Tally weighs approximately 30 lbs. and can be easily moved to an optimal docking location within a retail store’s floor plan.

Tally is equipped with a charging dock that it can autonomously navigate back to between scans allowing for continuous operation. The robot includes a suite of sensors enabling it to operate reliably and safely in retail environments while capturing information on the state of merchandise in the store. The data captured by the robot is sent securely to the cloud for processing and analysis. The data is then exposed through both an API and front-end application alongside specific recommendations to improve store performance to key stakeholders.

Additionally, Tally can be integrated into the retailers’ existing IT systems. Tally is built upon the open source Robot Operating System (ROS).

Tally audits shelves for out-of-stock, low stock, and misplaced items, and can spot pricing errors and items that aren’t facing the right direction, a big deal in retail. Advanced route planning and sense-and-avoid technology enables the robot to operate safely during business hours alongside shoppers and employees.

While the price remains undisclosed on the company’s website, we do know the startup (founded in 2014) is backed by leading investors such as Lemnos Labs and SOSV of San Francisco, CA.

Holy Robot Land…

Earlier this week, I took 30 venture professionals on a three day technology mission to Israel sponsored by the State of Israel’s Ministry of the Economy and the UJA Federation of New York (#ujatech).  We met with the leaders of Israel’s tech scene, as well as many promising startups.  Relevant to this blog, we spent a day at the new cyber security hub in Beer Sheva hosted by EMC. While IT security is a high priority in this data-driven world, industrial IoT (especially autonomous cars) is the hottest new sector in the desert. In addition to cyber, the land of milk & honey is flowing with automation…

Teva is a global leader in generic pharmaceuticals and one of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies of the world. Headquartered in Shoham Israel, Teva operates in 60 countries and has 47,000 employees worldwide.  My delegation visited their Jerusalem factory that is almost fully automated. Built on four floors the warehouse uses robots, RFID and computer vision to move raw materials to the production lines. Human workers have been promoted to a QoS role, while the industrial machines pick, place, and distribute compounds into capsules for global distribution.

teva robotThe automation rose out of the demand to handle more than 1000 warehouse orders per hour and store more than 75,000 pallets; a task that could only be achieved by a robust and fully automated solution. Teva partnered with Unitronics as the systems integrator for the automated portion of this project.

Automation tasks include: automated truck loading/unloading conveyors, automated shrink-wrap machinery, pallet changers and more. The picking system consists of 15,500 automated locations for totes, an automated picking machine (A-machine), 6 goods-to-man stations, and automated closing lines  The material flow throughout the entire center is done by a decentralized control system controlled by PLCs. Cranes, lifts, conveyors and special machines are all connected by a network of dozens of Unitronics Vision570™ and Vision1040™ PLCs. The automated cranes move at a very high speed and with precise levels of accuracy within the millimeter. Each of the pallet cranes executes approx. 50 movements per hour and each of the tote cranes executes more than 400 movements per hour. The whole system is also built in controlled temperature and humidity conditions that have been planned and tested according to strict FDA regulations.

teve craneIn addition to the cranes and belts, Teva uses a gravity-based distribution network to feed powder compounds to factory floors. These compounds are processed into specific machines that output 300,000 pills an hour.  When seeing the scale of this automation firsthand it is no wonder why Teva consistently outperforms competitors, with 20% net profit.

As the sun set on Jerusalem, I marveled how this small land continues to lead the world into the next industrial age.

The Robot Postman

Already with the demise of the Great Pumpkin, comes the rise of tinsel and lights.  Jiggle bells today translates to the hum of trucks delivering good tidings. While e-commerce continues to outpace brick & mortar, it also creates major financial problems with free shipping promos and last mile deliveries. Last year alone, the US Postal Service lost $5 billion and Amazon $3 Billion on free shipping.  To buck this trend, Amazon, Google and Walmart are actively experimenting with drones to ship goods.

However, this week the founders of Skype, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friss,  think there terrestrial delivery platform is the big idea:

The London-based Starship uses a secure box on wheels to deliver goods within 30 minutes. With six wheels and an integrated array of sensors, the Starship rover can make autonomous deliveries within a 3 mile radius. The box can hold about two grocery bags worth of goods, and deliveries can come from retail outlets or dedicated Starship hubs.

“The last few miles often amounts to the majority of the total delivery cost,” said Heinla, now CEO of Starship. “Our robots are purposely designed using the technologies made affordable by mobile phones and tablets – it’s fit for purpose, and allows for the cost savings to be passed on to the customer.”

robot postman

Customers will be able to track the box as it moves at about the pace of a brisk walk. When the delivery arrives, they can use the same app to unlock the box. The delivery market is currently seeing a lot of disruption. While programs like UberEats and Amazon Prime Now are aiming to use existing infrastructure to facilitate faster deliveries, the ultimate goal seems to be unmanned deliveries. Just last week, Walmart asked for Federal Aviation Administration approval for testing drone deliveries, joining Amazon and Google in a bid to expand delivery options.

Starship’s delivery model may be appealing to vendors who don’t want to deal with FAA approval but still want the benefits of unmanned deliveries. Since Starship rovers are able to use sidewalks instead of the skies to get around, they avoid much of the existing regulations on autonomous vehicles. That’s not to say municipalities won’t place restrictions on their use in the future, but the sidewalk is a lot more open than the skies at the moment. People also don’t have to worry about rovers falling out of the sky and dropping on their heads.

While the system is 99% autonomous, Starship said human operators will be overseeing trips to step in if things go haywire. Starship vehicles will be no more than 40 pounds when fully loaded, so they won’t crush your toes too bad if they decide to go rogue. And a flag on top means you won’t be tripping over it very easily.

Starship is currently demonstrating prototypes and testing its devices. It plans to launch in conjunction with retailers and service providers in the U.S., U.K. and other countries in 2016.  Next year, Santa may be driving an autonomous sleigh followed by a swarm of drones and terrestrial ships.  Poor Rudolph will have to retire.

20,000 Robots Under The Sea (Sans Nemo)

Robots will replace human jobs, period.  There are occupations that are frankly just too dangerous for people. For example, earlier today I met with a former diver and demolition expert for the Israeli Navy (who now runs his own robotic startup).  CMU alum company, RE2, Inc., received a SBIR grant for designing “Inflatable Underwater Manipulator Arms” for the US Navy as part of their expanded development of underwater drones.

During the Phase I program, RE2 will design a light-weight inflatable underwater manipulation system for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV). The inflatable manipulator arms will be designed as a payload for AUVs. Ultimately, the manipulator arms will be used as a collaborative robotic system to assist Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) divers in dismantling Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices (WIEDs) and other hazards.


EOD divers are often placed in harm’s way while performing underwater location and identification of ordnance on ships, waterways, and underwater structures. The deployment of a cost-effective and reliable manipulation system on an AUV promises to bring the stand-off capabilities that robotic and autonomous systems have brought to EOD technicians operating on land to those operating underwater.

“Our talented engineering team has extensive experience designing and developing robotic arms for EOD robots,” stated Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2. “Underwater is our next frontier and we are honored that the Navy has entrusted RE2 with the design of this new inflatable robotic manipulation system.”

This program is RE2’s second contract with the Navy this year to develop underwater manipulator arms. RE2 is also developing an Underwater Dexterous Manipulation System for Explosive Ordnance Disposal Applications, this past August.

While the RE2’s grant is currently focused on ordnance disposal, other non-military applications may be on the horizon such as disaster recovery and surveying/collection. When I last met with Pedersen he was focused on a ubiquitous platform for interchangeable parts, this wider distribution strategy will enable him to expand this value proposition for both robots and humans, alike.