Robotics Startups Are Coming to the Retail Aisle

If an emerging wave of robotics companies have their way, it will soon be a common experience to walk down the aisle of a store alongside an autonomous robot.

There’s OSHbot, a human-sized robot already leading customers through select Lowe’s stores LOW 0.82% to the items they seek. There’s also Fetch, a rolling robot that can use its one arm to pluck items from a shelf and prep them for shipping.

Simbe, a San Francisco startup that emerged from secrecy on Wednesday, is the latest to join the pack. Its new robot Tally can roll through a store and log what items are out of stock or incorrectly placed before generating a report of what actions the store should take.

“These entities have great supply chain intelligence and point of sale intelligence, but there’s this clear gap in the physical store, which is where you and I often make our purchasing decision,” says Brad Bogolea, Simbe’s CEO and co-founder.

Robots have been used by manufacturers and other industries for decades now to complete tedious or dangerous tasks, but it was only recently that robots began to move into retail work. They are no longer so dangerous that they need to be constrained to a cage. And thanks to improved sensors and computer vision, they are now smart enough to complete many tasks once limited to human employees.

“A person is still a far more sophisticated, more adaptable, more intelligent, more skilled and more responsive part of the labor force than any robots we have,” says Andra Keay, the founder of Robot Launchpad and managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics. “But robots are capable of great skill and sophistication in very narrow areas. What interests me is we can add robot assistance at parts of the value chain that people don’t do well and don’t tend to like doing.”

Simbe’s Tally robot can be programmed to take stock of a store at any time of day, and then return itself to its charging dock. It stops in front of each shelf and captures a high-resolution image of product labels, which are checked against a map of the ideal layout of all the goods in the store.

The intelligence gathered is fed to the store’s staff, which uses the information to restock and reorder. A regional manager of a chain can get a real-time update on how goods are performing across many different stores. Suppliers can get immediate feedback, too.

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