Phil Duffy, is the VP of Product, Program & UX Design at Brain Corp a San Diego-based technology company specializing in the development of intelligent, autonomous navigation systems for everyday machines.
The company was co-founded in 2009 by world-renowned computational neuroscientist, Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, and serial tech entrepreneur, Dr. Allen Gruber. Brain Corp’s initial work involved advanced R&D for Qualcomm Inc. and DARPA. The company is now focused on developing advanced machine learning and computer vision systems for the next generation of self-driving robots.
Brain Corp powers the largest fleet of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) with over 10,000 robots deployed or enabled worldwide and works with several Fortune 500 customers like Walmart and Kroger.
What attracted you initially to the field of robotics?
My personal interest in developing robots over the last two decades stems from the fact that intelligent robots are one of the two major unfulfilled dreams of the last century—the other dream being flying cars.
Scientists, science-fiction writers, and filmmakers all predicted we would have intelligent robots doing our bidding and helping us in our daily lives a long time ago. As part of fulfilling that vision, I am passionate about developing robots that tackle the repetitive, dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks that robots excel at, but also building solutions that highlight the unique advantages of humans performing creative, complex tasks that robots struggle with. Developing robots that work alongside humans, both empowering each other, ensures we build advanced tools that help us become more efficient and productive.
I am also driven by being part of a fledgling industry that is building the initial stages of the robotics ecosystem. The robotics industry of the future, like the PC or smartphone industry today, will include a wide array of technical and non-technical staff, developing, selling, deploying, monitoring, servicing, and operating robots. I’m excited to see how that industry grows and how decisions we make today impact the industry’s future direction.
In 2014, Brain Corp pivoted from performing research and development for Qualcomm, to the development of machine learning and computer-vision systems for autonomous robots. What caused this change?
It was really about seeing a need and opportunity in the robotics space and seizing it. Brain Corp’s founder, Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, was approached by Qualcomm in 2008 to build a computer based on the human nervous system to investigate how mammalian brains process information and how biological architecture could potentially form the building blocks to a new wave of neuromorphic computing. After completing the project, Eugene and a close-knit team of scientists and engineers decided to apply their computational neuroscience and machine learning approaches to autonomy for robots.
While exploring different product directions, the team realized that the robotics industry of the day looked just like the computer industry before Microsoft—dozens of small companies all adding custom software to a recipe of parts from the same hardware manufacturer. Back then, lots of different types of computers existed, but they were all very expensive and did not work well with each other. Two leaders in operating systems emerged, Microsoft and Apple, with two different approaches: while Apple focused on building a self-contained ecosystem of products and services, Microsoft built an operating system that could work with almost any type of computer.
The Brain Corp team saw the value in creating a “Microsoft of robotics” that would unite all of the disparate robot solutions under one cloud-based software platform. Their goal became to help build out the emerging category of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) by providing autonomy software that others could use to build their robots. The Brain Corp team decided to focus on making a hardware-agnostic operating system for AMRs. The idea was simple: to enable builders of robots, not build the robot intelligence themselves.
What was the inspiration for designing an autonomous scrubber versus other autonomous technologies?
Industrial robotic cleaners were the perfect way to enter the market with our technology. The commercial floor cleaning industry was in the midst of a labor shortage when we started out—constant turnover meant many jobs were simply not getting done. Autonomous mobile cleaning robots would not only help fill the labor gap in an essential industry, they would also be scalable—every environment has a floor and that floor probably needs cleaning. Floorcare was therefore a good opportunity for a first application.
Beyond that, retail companies spend about $13B on floorcare labor annually. Most employ cleaning staff who use large machines to scrub store floors, which is rote, boring work. Workers drive around bulky machines for hours when their time could be better spent on tasks that require acuity. An automated floor cleaning solution would fill in for missing workers while optimizing the efficiency and flow of store operations. By automating the mundane, boring task of scrubbing store floors, retail employees would be able to spend more time with customers and have a greater impact on business, ultimately leading to greater job satisfaction.
Can you discuss the challenge of designing robots in an environment that often involves tight spaces and humans who may not be paying attention to their surroundings?
It’s an exciting challenge! Retail was the perfect first implementation environment for Brain Corp’s system because they are such complex environments that pose an autonomy challenge, and are ripe with edge cases that allow Brain Corp to collect data that refines the BrainOS navigation platform.
We addressed these challenges of busy and crowded retail environments by building an intelligent system, BrainOS, that uses cameras and advanced LIDAR sensors to map the robot’s environment and navigate routes. The same technology combination also allows the robots to avoid people and obstacles, and find alternate routes if needed. If the robot encounters a problem it cannot resolve, it will call its human operator for help via text message.
The robots learn how to navigate their surroundings through Brain Corp’s proprietary “teach and repeat” methodology. A human first drives the robot along the route manually to teach it the right path, and then the robot is able to repeat that route autonomously moving forward. This means BrainOS-powered robots can navigate complex environments without major infrastructure modifications or relying on GPS.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) in public spaces?
We have seen a significant uptick in autonomous usage across the BrainOS-powered fleet as grocers and retailers look to enhance cleaning efficiency and support workers during the health crisis.
During the first four months of the year, usage of BrainOS-powered robotic floor scrubbers in U.S. retail locations rose 18% compared to the same period last year, including a 24% y-o-y increase in April. Of that 18% increase, more than two-thirds (68%) occurred during the daytime, between 6 a.m. and 5:59 p.m. This means we’re seeing retailers expand usage of the robots to daytime hours when customers are in the stores, in addition to evening or night shifts. We expect this increase to continue as the value of automation comes sharply into focus.
What are some of the businesses or government entities that are using Brain Corp robots?
Our customers include top Fortune 500 retail companies including Walmart, Kroger, and Simon Property Group. BrainOS-powered robots are also used at several airports, malls, commercial buildings, and other public indoor environments.
Do you feel that this will increase the overall comfort of the public around robots in general?
Yes, people’s perception of robots and automation in general is changing as a result of the pandemic. More people (and businesses) realize how robots can support human workers in meaningful ways. As more businesses reopen, cleanliness will need to be an integral part of their brand and image. As people start to leave their homes to shop, work, or travel, they will look to see how businesses maintain cleanliness. Exceptionally good or poor cleanliness may have the power to sway consumer behavior and attitudes.
As we’ve seen in the last months, retailers are already using BrainOS-powered cleaning robots more often during daytime hours, showing their commitment and investment in cleaning to consumers. Now more than ever, businesses need to prove that they’re providing a safe and clean environment for customers and workers. Robots can help them deliver that next level of clean—a consistent, measureable clean that people can count on and trust.
Another application by Brain Corp is the autonomous delivery tug. Could you tell us more about what this is and the use cases for it?
The autonomous delivery tug, powered by BrainOS, enables autonomous delivery of stock carts and loose-pack inventory for any indoor point-to-point delivery needs, enhancing efficiency and productivity. The autonomous delivery tug eliminates inefficient back and forth material delivery and works seamlessly alongside human workers while safely navigating complex, dynamic environments such as retail stores, airports, warehouses, and factories.
A major ongoing challenge for retailers—one that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 health crisis—is maintaining adequate stock levels in the face of soaring demand from consumers, particularly in grocery. Additionally, the process of moving inventory and goods from the back of a truck, to the stockroom, and then out to store shelves, is a laborious and time-consuming process requiring employees to haul heavy, stock-laden carts back and forth multiple times. The autonomous delivery tug aims to help retailers address these restocking challenges, taking the burden off store workers and providing safe and efficient point-to-point delivery of stock without the need for costly or complicated facility retrofitting.
The autonomous delivery application combines sophisticated AI technology with proven manufacturing equipment to create intelligent machines that can support workers by moving up to 1,000 pounds of stock at a time. Based on an in-field pilot program, the autonomous delivery tug will save retail employees 33 miles of back-and-forth travel per week, potentially increasing their productivity by 67%.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about Brain Corp?
Brain Corp powers the largest fleet of AMRs operating in dynamic public indoor spaces with over 10,000 floor care robots deployed or enabled worldwide. According to internal network data, AMRs powered by BrainOS are currently collectively providing over 10,000 hours of daily work, freeing up workers so they can focus on other high value tasks during this health crisis, such as disinfecting high-contact surfaces, re-stocking, or supporting customers.
In the long term, robots give businesses the flexibility to address labor challenges, absentee-ism, rising costs, and more. From a societal standpoint, we believe robots will gain consumer favor as they’re seen more frequently operating in stores, hospitals, and health care facilities, or in warehouses providing essential support for workers.
We’re also excited about what the future holds for Brain Corp. Because BrainOS is a cloud-based platform that can essentially turn any mobile vehicle built by any manufacturer into an autonomous mobile robot, there are countless other applications for the technology beyond commercial floor cleaning, shelf scanning, and material delivery. Brain Corp is committed to continuously improving and building out our AI platform for powering advanced robotic equipment. We look forward to further exploring new markets and applications.
Thank you for the amazing interview, readers who wish to learn more should visit Brain Corp.