Brady Watkins, is the Senior Vice President and General Manager at SoftBank Robotics America, a company that is becoming a worldwide leader in robotics solutions. There are currently over 35,000 SoftBank Robotics robots, Pepper, NAO and Whiz, used in more than 70 countries worldwide
What drew you to robotics initially?
I came from the video game industry where I was fully steeped in helping to commercialize one-of-a-kind player experiences with cutting-edge development and technology. In that field, I was inspired by seeing firsthand how hardware, software, and talent can deliver joy and a happier day-to-day to end-users through unique experiences. I found direct parallels in robotics, with the added element of packaging both virtual and physical elements into one solution. Working with world-class partners in gaming fueled my passion for finding organizations that were committed to solving problems with new solutions at scale. With SoftBank Robotics, I found an organization that looked very different to my prior roles, but felt right at home with our mission of creating the extraordinary. In growing the Pepper B2B business and use cases, and then expanding to Whiz, we continue to create people-first robot experiences and deliver the value of cobotics and automation. A robot is much more than one repetitive, pervasive task – it’s about laying the groundwork for our future in automation and how we work.
Can you tell us a bit more about Pepper and how it has been used?
With a unique and welcoming form factor, Pepper is a humanoid robot designed to make people’s lives better. Pepper uses multiple cameras, lasers, and sonar to recognize and take in information about the interaction and the person it is assisting. Pepper has been used to both engage and entertain customers in retail and hospitality, while also providing valuable customer support, so human staff can focus on higher-value and more rewarding work. Currently, our global colleagues are using Pepper to promote social distancing and greet patients. Pepper is a great example of how robots should be designed to partner with people and augment the workplace.
Another Softbank Robotics product is the Autonomous Vacuum Sweeper Whiz. Could you discuss some of the machine learning technologies behind this such as how it avoids obstacles, learns routes, etc.?
Whiz is powered by the commercial robot operating system, BrainOS, and can record up to 600 cleaning routes. Once a human teaches Whiz an initial floor cleaning route, Whiz stores that route, so it can repeat it autonomously while also smartly avoiding obstacles. As it cleans, Whiz collects data to show a confirmed clean, including when, where and how long it ran.
To date, Whiz has cleaned floor spaces equivalent to over 208,000 miles, or nearly 8.5 laps around the Earth, at locations such as airports, hotels, office campuses, education campuses, health care facilities, multifamily buildings, and more.
How has the market reacted to Whiz amidst the pandemic?
Since the pandemic hit, we have seen a heightened interest in robotics and automation, especially in the cleaning industry. Cleaning teams for commercial spaces were already feeling strained before COVID-19, but under the increased demands of our “new normal”, these teams are faced with having to sanitize more frequently and disinfect shared spaces while at the same time reducing human contact. From our conversations with our customers, we are seeing that more companies are realizing they need automation to help support this increased demand, invest in their long-term business resilience, and allow their current workers to focus on higher-value tasks that can’t be completed by a robot.
Last month, the global cumulative sales of Whiz reached more than 10,000 units. With a 55 percent market share of the autonomous professional cleaning robot market, Whiz is now the most widely used autonomous professional cleaning robot by sales. We are currently offering Whiz in Japan, the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, but have plans to expand to even more markets in the near future.
What are some other ways that you can see robotics solving the key concerns in the cleaning industry in the next 5 to 10 years?
The value proposition of robotics is clearer than ever. As long as concerns around the virus are prevalent, robotics in the cleaning industry will be used to maintain social distancing for cleaning teams and help them keep up with the increased demands around the sanitation and disinfection of shared spaces. Looking further into the future, I expect we will see robotics play a much larger role in our everyday lives. We are seeing that the pandemic is causing a significant shift in people’s perceptions of automation. They see that robots are targeted task-solvers, not job-takers, and are realizing that they can actually play a critical role in supporting the increased pressure the cleaning industry faces.
Can you discuss the value of human-robot collaboration and how this will increase over time?
At SoftBank Robotics, we believe cobotics, short for collaborative robotics, will be the natural bridge and assistant between the new uncertainties of our physical world and people. Cobots perform repetitive and pervasive tasks so humans can spend their time on tasks that provide value and elevate their work. In the case of Whiz, this means handling vacuuming while the human focuses on projects like disinfecting high-touch areas. Beyond cleaning, this can mean providing customer service in a retail store or checking the inventory on the shelves of a grocery store. Even as our new day-to-day stabilizes, we expect the use of cobotics to only increase, especially in areas like cleaning, inventory management, food service, and delivery.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about Softbank Robotics?
SoftBank Robotics remains committed to introducing robotics and automation technology that will elevate people’s lives and, as a result, make us more productive, more modern and safe. We currently have 30,000 robots deployed around the world across multiple industries. At this scale and speed, we know what it means to create impactful, beneficial, and safe automation that benefits humanity, rather than robotics for robotics’ sake. Any company not investing in market-ready automation now for the long term, especially in our current turbulent health and economic environment, will fall behind. We’re here to further automation adoption beyond our own products and for a better world.
Thank you for the interview, readers who wish to learn more should visit SoftBank Robotics America.