It’s been a few years since we first met Five Elements Robotics at RoboBusiness, where they introduced Budgee, a sort of robotic stuff-carrier that will follow you around with up to 22 kilograms of your junk by homing in on a small ultrasonic emitter. Last week at the Bloomberg Technology Conference, Five Elements CEO Wendy Roberts announced that Walmart is evaluating a prototype of a new Five Elements robotic shopping cart called Dash. Dash is much more than an upgraded version of Budgee; it’s a completely new platform, specifically designed for autonomous shopping assistance.
There are a lot of things I like about this idea. There’s a clear value proposition to a robot that can carry groceries, guide shoppers directly to the items they want, and then handle paying for those items, since people hate doing all of those things. Also, unlike Budgee, you don’t have to worry about the cost of the robot, since the store absorbs all of that, spreading it out over many customers per day.
However, there are some pretty serious safety and navigation challenges that Dash is going to have to handle, and so far, it’s hard to tell if the Dash prototype is going to be able to do what it has to do with what looks to be a single medium-range LIDAR system, a 3D camera, and some ultrasonic sensors. Grocery stores are often chaotic, with lots of people hurriedly moving all over the place while pushing carts or carrying stuff. Aisles are frequently blocked. There are things on the floor that have to be avoided, and often those things are (say) an employee with cases of items, restocking shelves.
I don’t have to belabour this point: you’ve been to a grocery store before, so you know exactly what kind of environment it can be, and getting a robot to autonomously, safely, and reliably navigate through all that at a useful pace is going to be a very difficult software problem. And the “following the customer to their car” feature, where you’d be asking the robot to navigate outdoors through a parking lot which consists of a big open space full of a bunch of nearly identical objects that effectively appear and disappear at random? I’ll believe it when I see it.
Again, I think that this could be a really great idea, but based on what we’ve heard from companies like Fetch and Savioke (who are deploying autonomous robots in significantly more structured and predictable environments than grocery stores), we want to emphasize how difficult, and likely unpredictably difficult, getting a robot like this to work is going to be. And just getting it to work isn’t enough: it has to work so well and reliably that inexperienced customers won’t get frustrated with it, that it won’t take constant minding from store employees, and that it’ll maintain enough uptime to justify however much it costs.
Dash is scheduled to enter production in early 2017.