Bossa Nova CTO explains expansion to a total of 1,000 Walmart stores

The Robot Report

NEW YORK — Bossa Nova Robotics Inc. announced today at NRF 2020 here that it plans to expand deployments of its inventory robots from 350 Walmart stores today to 1,000 by year’s end. The 650 additional robots will be serviced by partner NCR Corp., said Bossa Nova.

The Robot Report spoke with Sarjoun Skaff, co-founder and chief technology officer at Pittsburgh-based Bossa Nova, about the expansion.

What lessons did Bossa Nova learn about scaling from its first 50 and then 350 robots at Walmart stores?

Skaff: We had to learn a lot of things. What’s the best way of getting robots to be unsupervised and running with minimal downtime?

We also learned how to deliver data within a minute of scanning an aisle, no matter how many there are or how long the aisles are. We worked very hard to unlock big features for scalability.

Now that we did that, the next stage is to exploit those features and our partnerships that will help with putting our feet or brains on the floor.

Who is providing the software and hardware in this expansion? Did you have to alter designs to meet demand?

Skaff: It’s all Bossa Nova software, end to end. We would like to partner on the field operations aspect of our business to amplify robot deployments.

One of the lessons from our first 350 robots was regarding what it takes to assemble and service the robots at scale. We previously announced Bossa Nova 2020, which will be our workhorse — not necessarily for this expansion, but as we look beyond this year for on-shelf inventory management.

Bossa Nova 2020 inventory robot includes sharper vision, smaller footprint

The Bossa Nova 2020 inventory robot has new lights, sensors, and edge processing. Source: Bossa Nova Robotics

Are you satisfied with the development of machine learning and artificial intelligence?

Skaff: For image understanding, it’s pretty good right now. We’re going to take the next step and add depth for “RGBD” — color with depth — that will be the next bump in accuracy and speed.

At Walmart, the more data we collect, the faster machine-learning systems will get better. Taking data to a higher level, it’s not just the hardware or software, but it’s also a solution. It’s how you interpret and act on the data.

Modern retailers are trying to meet the new demands of shoppers who want to buy any product at any time, in any way they want. Therefore, stores are trying to use their inventory to deliver within an hour. Everybody is trying to win that last-mile race.

There’s a lot of interest in delivery robots, the Industrial Internet of Things, and 5G networking. What do you think of them?

Skaff: Like the current expansion of robotics enabled by Microsoft Kinect and cellphone cameras, the next leap will depend on the rest of the infrastructure to be built up. It will take a while.

What interest have you received from other retailers besides Walmart?

Skaff: It has been all across the board. It’s easier for us to take a step toward larger stores, super centers, and hypermarkets, but smaller stores are also coming to us.

Bossa Nova 2020 is thinner and can access narrow aisles. Then, different aspects of data capture come into play.

Beneath it all, our AI engine will in effect be common to all the data being captured, common to all the inventory we scan. As we find more data, the combination of sensors and AI will provide ways to scale.

What does NCR bring to your partnership?

Skaff: NCR is a 100-year-old corporation operating in 120 countries. Our partnership with NCR is not new; it’s just expanding. The company is helping with deploying, servicing, and maintaining our robots, as well as with geographic expansion.

Beyond the logical complementarity of our businesses, it’s a great cultural fit. NCR operates like the nimblest of startups. It has really modern headquarters in Atlanta, with an open space where the CEO meets the entire company every week. They’re really challenging and reinventing themselves.

Speaking of partnerships, would Bossa Nova consider being acquired anytime soon?

Skaff: It’s way too soon to tell. We want to serve the entire retail industry — that’s everything we’re focused on right nw.

As with any startup, our job is to stay focused. Our core is robotics and AI. Then partnering with a retail solutions company such as NCR that already has a field force for service and support makes a lot of sense.

How have store personnel reacted to Bossa Nova’s robots so far? Do they become more comfortable over time?

Skaff: Scanning inventory is not the best use of people’s time.

In general terms, we position the robot as a productivity tool, the modern equivalent of a bar-code scanning gun. We see the robot viewed as a tool or even as a part of the team. Human co-workers will give it a name tag.

If employees didn’t support the robots, they would never survive, but because they know the problems to be solved, the robot can help with prioritization. The stores get better, faster data, and not just about inventory. Beyond locating products on shelves, they can see operational problems, which they can then rank and address by severity.

Because the robot scans before you have to act, managers can decide in what sequence to address problems. In this way, robots increase the efficiency of the whole team, with sensing and analysis as the decision tools.

Is Bossa Nova looking at groceries and produce in addition to consumer packaged goods?

Skaff: Groceries are very important. In fact, today, online grocery is the fastest-growing segment of the market. Anecdotally, it’s difficult to get people to trust a robot choosing vegetables for them.

With vision recognition, we’re going to expand it to cover fresh produce, coolers, and refrigerators. We’ll expand scope to include the entire store, including apparel.

What about back-of-store operations, as online retailers use them as distribution nodes?

Skaff: We’re resisting that. There so much opportunity in the front of stores, and we’re just getting started. We serve the industry better by doing what we’re doing better and faster and by staying focused.

Now that we have learned the market well, we want to leverage our knowledge and connections. When we expand our scope to include different formats of stores rather than the back end, we serve retailers better.

How concerned is Bossa Nova about rising competition in retail robotics?

Skaff: We hope to stay in front, and it’s definitely validation of our technology approach. When we started in 2013, there was nothing. Stores didn’t think that robots would be safe or that customers would get them, and many investors weren’t interested. We’ve worked diligently to overcome that.

Again, it will be the right combination of sensors that solves it for the entire industry. For large stores, a robot stands to reason, but for smaller ones, stationary cameras may be the solution. We’re building AI to serve both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

Does Bossa Nova have global ambitions?

Skaff: We do. We are solving a universal problem. Every retailer, no matter where it is in the world, no matter how well run it is, has the need to run better.

NCR has an international presence that will help us run beyond borders. We already have a U.K. office, and we hope to serve the global industry.

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