Self-driving cars have dominated chatter about the potential of autonomous technology. However, focusing on just vehicle applications misses how far and wide automation has already begun to go.
Take Brain Corp, a US-based developer of tech for self-driving robots that raised $114 million last summer in a round led by the SoftBank Vision Fund. So, what application for autonomous tech convinced the Japanese investment powerhouse to part with its cash?
‘There’s no point building robots for robots’ sake,’ explained Phil Duffy (right), the VP for innovation at Brain, in an interview with PitchBook. ‘[In cleaning], we found a market with a high turnover rate of staff, rising labour costs and very slow innovation. ... We are bringing something significant to market, so we went in.’
While the old-school industry was initially receptive of Brain’s ideas, making machines smart in a real-life environment was not simple.
‘Building any kind of navigation-based AI in a lab is one thing,’ Duffy said. ‘But making it work in a real-world situation is an absolute challenge.’
For industrial-scale cleaning, this involves many moving parts, both human and robot. As Duffy explained, there could be up to 20 people in one store at night, driving forklift trucks, restocking and moving carts: ‘Developing AI for those types of spaces is very complex.' To help do it, representatives from the company spent several nights observing the inner workings of different stores to see the patterns that emerge.
"We want to set ourselves up as a company providing AI software to a number of different industries."
-Phil Duffy, VP for innovation at Brain
Janitorial work, however, isn't Brain’s only aim.
‘The goal was always to take our technology into other sectors,’ he said. 'We designed it as a platform originally before going into the cleaning industry, but we needed a market entry point. We want to set ourselves up as a company providing AI software to a number of different industries.’
Duffy named retail, security, logistics, healthcare and consumer applications as other sectors that are broadly ‘on [Brain’s] radar'.
One of the big acid tests for the company’s tech will come this summer. In partnership with SoftBank Robotics, the company will enter Japan’s commercial cleaning robot business. Preparation is going well, Duffy said, but Japanese nuances have brought their own issues.
‘Obviously there are challenges,' he said, 'such as designing a system to work on a Japanese network—there’s a slightly different UI system—as well as configuring it to Japanese store layouts and processes. But we’re working well with SoftBank Robotics to prepare our machines for deployment.’