Rise of the Robots? Futuristic, Sure, but the Technology Is Also Here and Now


Sponsored by Knightscope

Robots in retail are a bit of a dichotomy—simultaneously ‘one day’ and ‘right now.’

We are, certainly, just scratching the surface of what mobile, autonomous machines will do. Yet for many retailers, the current marketplace already offers machines that are a good operational fit and provide positive return on investment.

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“We are right now with robotics where the PC was in the 80s. Over the next five to ten years, we will see an absolute explosion,” said Stacy Dean Stephens, vice president of marketing and sales for Knightscope, which makes mobile, autonomous physical security solutions.

While that view suggests the major breakthroughs still to come, the technology has already surpassed some major milestones. One big one, in 2015, was Knightscope’s success in making mobile security devices fully autonomous—eliminating both the need for remote operation and taking the devices off tracks.

Today’s mobile security devices can navigate freely throughout retail environments, collecting data, live streaming and recording eye-level video, acting as two-way intercom devices to speak with customers or warn troublemakers, alerting if someone is an area where no one is allowed, and even heading back to charging pads when’s they’re feeling run down.

Stephens’ perception of the technology’s timeline is shared by Read Hayes, Ph.D, CPP, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC), which has been looking into retail applications for robots as part of its innovation working group over the last four years. “To say we’re at the crawling phase is a good way to put it,” Hayes said.

To date, the greatest impact of robots in retail has been in large warehouses and distribution centers in service of order fulfillment, but the LP application is plain. Designing a smart, autonomous machine to advance beyond the task of toting packages throughout a warehouse to the more complex role of performing security patrols takes the technology to the next level.

Although not designed to supplant LP or security personnel, mobile security units can perform many of the same activities as their human counterparts—but with a computer’s brain. On an indoor patrol, for example, it can take temperature measurements in sensitive areas. Or, during a parking lot patrol, it can recognize license plate numbers of interest and identify if a specific vehicle has been parked in a space longer than you’d like. Importantly, the machines free up human LP personnel to do what they’re uniquely good at. “It’s not intended to be a one-to-one replacement of a human being, it’s to augment the ways things are being done and enhance a retailer’s security profile—to fill those gaps where they don’t have surveillance and crime is taking place and to provide additional intelligence,” said Stephens.

The fact that machines can operate 24/7 is just another way in which they provide cost-effective force multiplication. “It provides potential cost savings and it’s also technology that allows you to look at security in a slightly different way, something that can be branded and engage people, rather than always thinking about another shirt to fill,” said Stephens.

Hayes suggested that robots may ultimately prove themselves most valuable to brick-and-mortar retailers by conducting ongoing inventory and ensuring on-shelf availability of products. Ensuring safety and security is another critical function, he said, and noted that “robots can play a role in that area.” To that end, the impression that customers have of the devices—as well as the perception of criminals—is significant. “The psychology is important, [regarding] what it should look like so that it’s not unsettling to people but will still seem like a threat to bad guys,” said Hayes. “Just as with people, there is only one chance to make a first impression.”

Knightscope was well aware that looks matter when it first rolled out its K3 mobile unit at a high-end shopping mall in 2015. “We were on pins and needles waiting to see the public reaction,” said Stephens. The company steeled itself for a measure of negative comments and was blown away when questionnaires didn’t yield a single one. Instead, the security machine was an instant social media hit, with shoppers posing alongside it and snapping selfies.

A robot’s form factor must be welcoming, yes, but also sufficiently robust to seem credible as a security deterrent. “It can’t be perceived in a way where someone thinks they can just push it on its side like a turtle or that it seems like a joke,” explained Hayes, who said it appears that Knightscope has done a good job striking that balance. “I think they’re making great strides in the area of utility in different environments and making them survivable,” he said.

Knightscope has also addressed other areas of potential concern for end users—including vandalism and being left behind by technology enhancements—by offering subscriptions to the mobile data machines and its Knightscope Security Operations Center management interface. “The end user does not own the unit,” said Stephens. “We provide this as a service, which includes service, maintenance, and software upgrades.”

The devices are directly available through Knightscope, but they’re also available for deployment in all fifty states through the company’s channel partners as well. By choosing to source the machines through one of these major security guard providers, end users are able to skirt troublesome bureaucratic issues that often accompany new technology. “By making it available through their guard company, it’s a simple addendum to their current statement of work, instead of being a major procurement issue associated with bringing in a new technology,” explained Stephens.

Although we’re far from where robot technology will eventually take us—and many questions remain unanswered and hypothesis untested—Hayes advised approaching it in the same way as conventional security technologies. “The approach is the same as any other strategy, tactic, or technology. To ask, ‘What am I trying to do here?’ ‘What is my best option for that?’ ‘What is most cost effective?’ ‘How would I deploy it?’” Answering those questions in some applications may now point LP leaders to security robots—regardless of the fact that they’re a nascent technology. The use case for robots is particularly viable “where there are tasks that are so mundane, or dangerous, or uncomfortable because of temperature or other reasons,” according to Hayes. To answer those questions, Knightscope offers virtual demonstrations of the technology through their website to potential clients.

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