Jonas Cleveland has been passionate about robotics since he was a kid — the co-founder and CEO of Cognitive Operational Systems started working on self-driving cars “before they were cool.” These days, retail is where his robotics run.
Retailers using the COSY system can deploy a robot to keep tabs on inventory in stores. The robot learns the store’s layout as it goes, allowing for a number of future uses, though the focus currently is on inventory management. The COSY robot can check everything from out-of-stocks to aisle compliance and planograms.
“We combine machine vision with artificial intelligence to enable a robot to drive around the store and map out the store’s architectural elements,” Cleveland says, “as well as recognizing all the products on the shelves.”
COSY removes those tasks from stores associates by design, he says.
“Every single bricks-and-mortar retailer who has gondola shelving has folks who are doing this surveying task, and they hate doing it. It’s tedious and mundane. They would rather be interacting with the customer or doing another job.”
The promise is certainly there. COSY was co-founded with Kostas Daniilidis, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is an expert in robotics; the company has already received funding from Intel Capital, Great Point Ventures (backed by former Oracle Chief Operating Officer Ray Lane) and Safeguard Scientifics. “These are folks who understand the space very well,” Cleveland said. “It’s a great validation for what we’re doing.”
COSY is focused on a very challenging problem for most retailers: inventory accuracy. The machine uses artificial intelligence to teach itself whatever it needs to know.
“COSY recognizes and understands the world the way that a human does. We’re able to train the system to recognize and detect all the items in the store itself.”
— Jonas Cleveland, COSY
“COSY recognizes and understands the world the way that a human does,” Cleveland says. “When it gets to the store, it may not have a map of the store. It creates that from scratch. If we do have access to the product database, that’s great. But we’re able to train the system to recognize and detect all the items in the store itself. We are able to work with nothing. If you give us a little bit of something, it helps push the accuracy.”
Inventory insight is becoming more crucial, especially as demands for instant delivery ramp up and bricks-and-mortar stores begin functioning as local distribution centers.
“The grocery store and the corner drug store are now warehouses,” he says, and as “a living warehouse, you need to have the same level of resolution and management that you do for your other distribution centers.”
Cleveland sees many applications beyond inventory, including temperature and lighting compliance. “In the future, robots will be driving along the aisle, doing the fulfillment of the online orders and then pushing those into the vans that drive to consumers that have ordered them online. Those will be automated in the future. We see ourselves enabling that.”
There are possibilities to make physical spaces more of an experience, with in-store turn-by-turn directions. COSY can be used with drones as well, and Cleveland sees integration with smartphones and augmented reality devices in the near future. There may even be an application for a shopping cart.
One thing is clear, though: robots will soon be sweeping up and down the aisles at retailers. Cleveland says the company has major announcements planned for coming months. “It will be really the first deployment at this scale of robots on store floors.”
Sandy Smith grew up working in her family’s grocery store, where the only handheld was a pricemarker with labels.