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    Buying groceries online with food stamps?

    Grocery shopping has fundamentally, likely irrevocably, changed during the pandemic as more consumers have opted for online grocery shopping out of convenience or necessity. But what about people who rely on food stamps?
    According to a recent Pew survey, a full quarter of adults have had trouble paying bills during the economic melee attributable to the pandemic. As of July 2020, over 40 million Americans were on food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
    Food stamps exist to help low income individuals, including those enduring a temporary hardship, bridge a crucial financial gap to access food. But as grocery shopping has migrated online at an unprecedented rate, many smaller merchants have struggled to find ways to accept digital payment using food stamps. In California, where I live, only five retailers (Albertsons, Amazon, Safeway, Vons, and Walmart) accept food stamps online. 
    That’s left a lot of consumers without a flexible grocery shopping option at a time when in-person school closures and other pressures have left many with less time than ever for shopping. Add to that the burden of standing in line at many grocery stores, which has become a persistent reality in Los Angeles and other major urban centers. Sensing a possible play for market share, a company called Stor.ai, which offers end-to-end digital commerce solutions for grocers of all sizes, has leapt into the fray with a new capability focused on food stamps.
    “Technology which enables SNAP participants to carry out their regular shopping online is a win-win scenario for grocers and low-income families alike,” said Eli Yeheskel, Director of U.S. Operations of Stor.ai. “Millions of food-stamps customers will now be able to shop online and pay for groceries using their food-stamps account. Meanwhile, grocers will be able to significantly expand their reach – a real game-changer for smaller community stores.”
    Most SNAP payments today are made through EBT (electronic benefit transfer) payment cards. Stor.ai now enables grocers to accept split payments involving multiple payment methods.
    “I am proud that Stor.ai is at the forefront of another paradigm shift as we work towards accelerating digital transformation within the grocery industry as a whole,” said Orlee Tal, CEO of Stor.ai. “Retailers must embrace technology and digitization in order to maintain and expand their client bases, especially given the growing popularity of online grocery shopping. At Stor.ai, we prioritize our customers to fully understand their needs, and we identified clear demand for tools which enable grocers to cater for recipients of food stamps.”

    Stor.ai’s digital commerce option is part of a rapid-moving trend toward digital commerce, which is now becoming a norm even for small grocers and mom & pop retailers. The trend mirrors a growth in autonomous delivery services targeting small businesses.
    The pandemic has accelerated adoption of various technologies aimed at the grocery delivery paradigm. In 2020 alone, Stor.ai saw 250% year over year growth.

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    A 3D camera that sees in pitch black

    Of the many technologies that have helped drive the robotics sector in the last few years, there’s a good case to be made that machine vision has had one of the greatest impacts. It’s also almost certainly true that new imaging technologies, and in particular 3D cameras, are on the cusp of unlocking heretofore unseen capabilities in robots.
    3D cameras aren’t a monolithic technology, but rather describe sensors incorporating a variety of sensing strategies. That fact is made clear in a host of new 3D sensing offerings from a company called Orbbec, a leading global 3D camera provider that recently launched four new products that typify how the technology class will soon extend robotics capabilities to a wide range of environment requirements, such as temperature and lighting conditions from sunlight to total darkness.
    “Innovations in 3D imaging, combined with broader advances like 5G, artificial intelligence and ultra-fast processors, are transforming the application landscape for designers and engineers,” says David Chen, Co-Founder and CEO at Orbbec. 
    One of these sensors utilizes time-of-flight technology, which utilizes an artificial light signal to resolve distance between the sensor and the subject for each point of the image, thus sensing in three dimensions with extreme accuracy. The cameras offer a high-resolution and can quickly capture the details of moving objects—even those with smooth and reflective surfaces, which are notoriously troublesome for robots. 
    “Our new camera with time-of-flight technology is a great example,” says Chen. “Its high resolution and tracking capabilities make it perfect for all kinds of products including fall detection, security, even at-home yoga and exercise products.”
    It’s easy to see how these capabilities will be critical as automation escapes the structured environments of factories and warehouses and begins to enter the unstructured world. Orbbec’s time-of-flight sensor isn’t easily affected by ambient lighting conditions, another crucial characteristic for robots interacting with an unpredictable world. The camera has a depth-of-field range from 0.2 to 5 meters along with multi-camera synchronization support and the ability to be used in complete darkness.
    Orrbec also recently unveiled an industrial-level 3D camera with ultra-high depth resolution and real-time 3D reconstruction. Developed in partnership with Purdue University, the camera will be available in 2021 as a white-label OEM product for laboratory and factory applications, among others.

    “Our new products for 2021 showcase our ability to design for more scenarios, more platforms, and a broader range of environmental conditions,” said Chen. “We’ve expanded our lighting options beyond traditional structured light, along with much higher depth resolution. These additions will be immensely helpful to designers and developers in a wide range of industries.”
    In addition to robotics, cameras like these support technology advances across a wide variety of sectors, including fitness. One of Orbbec’s parters is FITTAR, maker of a smart mirror product. 
    “By combining Orbbec’s innovative technology with our smart fitness platform, we are able to bring a new experience to the end user. We are very motivated to keep working closely together with Orbbec, introducing more innovative products to the market,” said Mark Voermans, Head of Product at FITTAR.
    If a mirror that sees you with unfailing accuracy sounds scary, just wait until you have a robotic home companion with an AI sense of humor. More

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    Back to work? Say hi to the new office robot

    Clean is king during the pandemic, and that germ-conscious mentality, along with the prevalence of masks and hand sanitizer, likely won’t go away once vaccines are distributed en masse. For robotics developers, promoting employee and customer confidence in the workplace through new health and safety tools is a prominent business priority for 2021. 
    The clearest example is the surge in disinfecting robots, which were a niche product relegated primarily to the healthcare market prior to last year. Now businesses of all stripes, from offices to shipping warehouses and grocery stores, are investing in disinfecting technology as a crucial prong of workplace safety.
    Disinfecting robots come in various stripes, including floor mopping robots like those supported by automation firm Brain Corp. UV light has proven a favorite disinfecting tool among developers, which isn’t surprising given how adaptable the technology is to existing automation platforms. Autonomous mobile robots, which began to proliferate in the enterprise in the last decade in applications like materials handling and warehouse pick-and-place operations, can be easily adapted for UV disinfecting technologies that require little more than proximity to target surfaces to work effectively. 
    That means existing mobile robotics technology portfolios can be leveraged into new disinfecting products without ground-up redesigns.
    LG, a player in mobile robotics, unveiled a disinfecting robot in late 2020. Fetch Robotics, a leader in autonomous mobile robots, was quick to market, bringing a model out last summer.
    Ava Robotics, which spun out of iRobot, is following this trajectory by building on automation technology first developed for its self-docking telepresence robots. The company has rolled out a new disinfection robot that can treat 9,000 square feet per hour and operates fully autonomously.
    Last summer Ava partnered with MIT CSAIL to develop a disinfection robot to help protect patrons of a Boston-area food bank. The new robot is a commercialized product for use in a variety of professional settings.

    “We initially partnered with Ava when they spun out of iRobot with telepresence robots. And now, with new safety expectations, we’re excited to pilot the UV robot in our Boston Worklife space, learning how it might help provide greater peace of mind for our customers and for our employees as they look to return to a safe work environment,” says Gale Moutrey, VP/Brand Innovation and Global Communications at Steelcase.
    The robots have also been piloted at Boston-based Steelcase, as well as organizations like Boston City Hall. Ava’s UV robots are expected to become widely available and ship in early Q2, 2021, an indication of just how quickly the company was able to spring through hardware development. 
    “With this timely expansion of our technology, we are bringing an intelligent UV disinfection robot with autonomous mobility to a market in great need,” said Youssef Saleh, co-founder and CEO of Ava Robotics. “Businesses must make employees, customers – and really anyone coming into their place of work – feel confident that all that can be done to keep them safe and healthy is being done.”
    The technology category is still new and sales numbers are hard to come by, but judging by the flurry of development the robotics firms creating disinfecting robots are sensing a window of real opportunity. That may well mean that raising your coffee to a new robotic coworker is yet another adjustment awaiting you in the pandemic era. More

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    How AI redefines advertising in 2021

    Advertising as a sector is notorious for major paradigm shifts. That’s because the shell game of grabbing consumers’ attention never stops, and as programmatic advertising gave way to influencers gave way to branded content gave way to … and on and on, so the game will always roll ahead as savvy marketers break new terrain and legions follow behind in a desperate bid for ears and eyes.
    Not surprising, then, that the winds are shifting yet again, and this time the leading edge of the industry is turning its attention to AI. I caught up with Sheri Bachstein, Global Head of Watson Advertising and The Weather Company, to discuss the transformative impact AI will have on the advertising game, as well as what we can expect in terms of adoption in traditional advertising and untested ecosystems like AR/VR.
    Me: What role will AI play in marketing in the years ahead? Where are we seeing AI already playing a successful role? Can you give some concrete examples?
    Sheri: We’re currently experiencing a significant period of transformation throughout the marketing and advertising industry with the deprecation of the cookie and third-party trackers. While this shift will cause a fair bit of disruption throughout our ecosystem, we believe there’s an opportunity for AI to shape the industry with the same impact that programmatic had years ago.
    Tapping into AI’s ability to offer predictive analysis on consumer behavior, while simultaneously leveraging data responsibly, we feel it’s the right solution going forward. AI has transformed industries like finance, insurance and healthcare just to name a few.  And we are already seeing success in advertising on our publisher platform, The Weather Channel.

    Me: What has been the pace of adoption in marketing? If there’s any resistance to adoption, what do you think are the reasons for that?
    Sheri: As with any new technology, the pace of adoption is tied to the education and experimentation of the technology itself. While there hasn’t been a true resistance to AI, only about 25% of global companies understand the true value of AI, and today it isn’t widely used across the digital advertising ecosystem.

    Adoption will take time for some, while others will see the benefits immediately. We need to ensure that AI is no longer perceived as a buzzword, but rather a tangible solution that can deliver real outcomes in a privacy forward way. Pushing this narrative will organically allow for us to explain the benefits of AI and explain why this technology will be a force for good.
    Me: Programmatic advertising changed the whole playbook for marketers. When might AI have a similar degree of impact? Why will it be a game changer?
    When programmatic came on the scene 10 years ago, it took a while for the industry to truly adopt it. We believe AI will be adopted faster. In fact, don’t be surprised if within the next year AI becomes the transformational technology that not only provides a solution for a post cookie ecosystem, but also becomes the foundational technology because it’s open and transparent.  The ad industry doesn’t need a variety of point solutions, it needs to evolve and leverage AI as new category of advertising.
    Sheri: What technological advances or breakthroughs can we expect in the years ahead that will help AI transform marketing?
    One technology I’m especially interested in keeping an eye on is augmented reality (AR), especially in ecommerce.  Given the current climate, the ability to actually take a piece of clothing, jewelry, makeup, etc. and put it on in virtually, in some regard, is extremely valuable. It doesn’t fully replace the experience of trying it on in the store, but it will enhance the online buying experience and it will be interactive and engaging… maybe even addictive and certainly social. Expect to see advertisers (as well as brands) look to tap into this technology more heavily to connect to consumers and accelerate e-commerce sales. More

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    Healthcare optimized: The role of robots post-COVID

    It would be difficult to overestimate the impact COVID-19 appears to be having on the automation sector. No where will the change be more apparent than in healthcare, where a major transition to automation has long been in the offing.
    What would have been a slower easing in has, in light of overstressed capacity in some areas of healthcare (and an eerie diminishment of demand in others), as well as a complete reorientation of consumer expectations in the pandemic era, set the stage for a jarring transformation.

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    Robotics Tomorrow, an industry trade publication, picked up on the trend early: 

    Major hospitals have deployed specialized robot nurses with remote patient monitoring tech so that doctors can keep an eye on people from afar. Other hospitals, along with grocery stores, restaurants and major retailers, have adopted robot cleaners that use UV-based tools to destroy bacteria and viruses. 

    Add to that the massive adoption of telemedicine as an avoidance strategy to mitigate infection and the stage is now set for a new paradigm of healthcare in which robots and remote healing via in-home robotic devices and data trackers, along with in-hospital telemedicine and delivery robots, reorient longstanding protocols to minimize person-to-person contact.
    “The entire healthcare system has been under an enormous amount of stress this year,” Dr. Eric Dusseux tells me, “and for the year ahead we’re already seeing the interest and conversations from healthcare providers around realigning on their ambition, goals, and strategies to improve functionalities within their facilities and quality of care for better patient outcomes across all practices. Technology and new solutions will play a huge part in reaching these goals for the future.”
    Dr. Dusseux heads BIONIK Labs, a company focusing on rehabilitation with data-driven, robotic assisted therapy systems that transform neurorecovery. He points out that from a technological perspective the timing has been ripe for a rethink about how to collect and use data for more effective healing, much of it centered around automation.

    “Patient data, A.I., and machine learning are bridging the communication gap between hospital executives, physicians, outpatient facilities, and patients themselves, allowing medtech companies like BIONIK to share insights with hospital C-suites and the therapists, using real world evidence to allow them to make informed decisions. Telemedicine, benefitting of improved reimbursement by payers during the pandemic, and connected robotic devices have emerged as fundamental tools in how we access and review patient data, including remote patient monitoring through wearable devices, implanted medical devices, and home therapy robotic devices, constituting new ways to engage and empower patients.”

    The interesting thing is that the forced reevaluation of systems and protocols during COVID is bleeding over into a general reevaluation of automation in healthcare for the longterm. As I wrote in October, robots can help health systems increase efficiency and enhance care while protecting patients and staff by eliminating contact points between them. Hospitals are littered with opportunities for smart automation, from front desks to operating rooms to outpatient settings. Companies like BIONIK, which focuses on rehabilitation, and others like Diligent Robotics, which makes a helper robot called Moxi that can pick up the slack for hospital staff, are keenly aware of the opportunities.
    “The processing and analysis of data is one of the areas where hospitals and healthcare facilities can most effectively automate,” says Dr. Dusseux. “Traditionally, healthcare staff had to sit and record patient results on a clipboard or computer; but now, healthcare networks can connect their patient-facing medical devices to the cloud so that patient progress can be automatically and instantly tracked. As this data is automatically generated and recorded, it is less biased than data collected by human doctors, making it more appropriate for decision making and recommendations. The data can then be used in a facility or network to make informed decisions in real time, spot room for progress and inefficiencies, and compare facilities versus the ones which have best practices, enabling managers and executives to manage, train and adapt their resources accordingly.”
    During an earlier exchange with Dr. Dusseux, he identified the reluctance of hospital CFOs and administrators to invest in emerging technology as one of the single greatest obstacles to the use of robotics and automation in healthcare networks. COVID has helped to chip away at that resistance, however. As a result, the new face of patient care may not be entirely human. More

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    Privacy nightmare? FAA's drone tracking rules have big consequences

    Flying Sky Red Landscape Drone Sunset Dji
    MaxPixel’s contributors
    In the last week of December, while many of us were sleeping off a bizarre holiday season after a long, wearying year, the FAA announced final rules for Unmanned Aircraft (UA), more commonly known as drones. The new rules, which have long been anticipated and were closely watched in the sector, will require Remote Identification (Remote ID) of drones and allow operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions. 
    On the one had, the relaxation of the strict embargo on small drones flying over people is a boon to a commercial small drone sector that’s been chomping at the bit to catch up to international markets in areas like drone delivery. And clear guidance from the FAA, which has been cautious about issuing new rulemaking when it comes to drones, is going to help what has become the fastest-growing segment in the transportation sector (there are currently over 1.7 million drones registered with the FAA).
    But there’s been a vocal cry of disappointment by some in the drone sector, including Alphabet’s Wing team, which sees a major privacy flaw in the FAA’s new framework.
    “At a basic level, the new rule would enable the real-time tracking of consumer’s drone delivery orders by the general public,” a public affairs spokesperson for Wing, told me by email. “American communities would not accept real-time surveillance of their deliveries or taxi trips on the road. They should not accept it in the sky.”
    To be clear, both the FAA and its critics support remote ID in drones as a necessary development. What Wing and others are taking exception to is the singluar way that flight information is broadcast in the current framework, and to whom. Wing addressed the distinction in a recent blog post:

    Unfortunately, the final rule, unlike existing international standards, does not allow the use of equally effective network remote ID, and requires all UAS, no matter the use case, to use “broadcast” RID. This approach creates barriers to compliance and will have unintended negative privacy impacts for businesses and consumers. Unlike traditional aircraft flying between known airports, commercial drones fly closer to communities and between businesses and homes. While an observer tracking an airplane can’t infer much about the individuals or cargo onboard, an observer tracking a drone can infer sensitive information about specific users, including where they visit, spend time, and live and where customers receive packages from and when. American communities would not accept this type of surveillance of their deliveries or taxi trips on the road. They should not accept it in the sky.

    The FAA’s stance is that the remote ID rules, which become effective 60 days after publication, is a necessary step toward integrating drones into the national airspace system. Like AIS in the maritime sector, Remote ID typically provides identification of drones in flight as well as the location of their control stations and even flight path and flight history, providing that crucial information to national security agencies and law enforcement. Part 107 of the federal aviation regulations currently prohibits drone operations over people and at night unless the operator obtains a waiver from the FAA, but the new FAA regulations jointly provide increased flexibility, which will be a boon to the nascent drone delivery sector.
    “The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

    Wing’s stance is that there’s ample room to use network-based RID for some use cases, especially delivery, which is a system that could discriminate what kind of information is available to whom. Leveraging the internet, for example, one possibility is an RID system for delivery drones where the general public could access basic information about a drone that flies by but would be locked out of more sensitive information, such as flight plans and history. That information would remain available to law enforcement via credentialed access.
    “We hope the FAA and broader Administration will consider the many ways that drones will be used in the future and recognize and respect the privacy rights of Americans who rely on this technology,” Wing writes.
    The FAA’s rules have been a long time in coming and they’ve worked closely with commercial partners through various trials of RID. How much the rules may evolve in the near term remains to be seen, but if privacy breaches do begin to surface as the delivery drone sector takes off there’s going to be a lot of public pressure on the FAA to change course. Wing’s stance may just be the warning bell. More

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    Automation nation: 9 robotics predictions for 2021

    The pandemic has offered challenges and a major opportunity to robotics firms in the logistics and grocery spaces. Unforeseen stresses to supply chains and runs on products have emphasized the need for greater supply chain efficiencies. Workforce constraints due to safety protocols and illness have also hammered various sectors.
    The lessons of 2020 can help us read the tea leaves for the priorities and trends in the robotics sector in 2021. Predictions are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but this year’s batch come with the benefit of a lot of hindsight and hand wringing.
    To explore the year in robotics, I connected with Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies. A product division of Jabil, a Badger is a manufacturing solutions provider that delivers comprehensive design, manufacturing, supply chain, and product management services as well as retail automation solutions that feature autonomous robots. That makes Rowland well positioned to offer a vantage on 2021 in some of the sectors most impacted by COVID-19 but also most primed for evolution.
    1) Expect robots to pinpoint exact product locations
    “Autonomous robots took on more expansive roles in stores and warehouses during the pandemic,” says Rowland, “which is expected to gain momentum in 2021. Data-collecting robots shared real-time inventory updates and accurate product location data with mobile shopping apps, online order pickers and curbside pickup services along with in-store shoppers and employees.”
    That’s especially key in large retail environments, with hundreds of thousands of items, where the ability to pinpoint products is a major productivity booster. Walmart recently cut its contract with robotic shelf scanning company Bossa Nova, but Rowland believes the future is bright for the technology category.
    2) Multipurpose robots measure up as mavens of multitasking

    Heretofore, automation solutions have largely been task-specific. That could be a thing of the past, according to Rowland.
    “Autonomous robots can easily handle different duties, often referred to as ‘payloads,’ which are programmed to address varying requirements, including but not limited to, inventory management, hazard detection, security checks, surface disinfectants, etc. In the future, retailers will have increased options for mixing/matching automated workflows to meet specific operational needs.”
    3) COVID-19 proved there’s a limited supply in the world
    Remember running out of toilet paper? So do retailers and manufacturers, and it was a major wake up call. 
    “Major restock runs and a surge in online shopping quickly depleted shelf inventory, especially during the run on paper products early in the pandemic,” says Rowland. 
    That’s could be a new reality throughout the 2020s with a warming planet and increasing unpredictability. So what’s the solution? One thing that’s clear is automation will play a huge role. 
    “Ensuring adequate supplies of “high flyers” requires integration of shelf-level data with backroom, warehouse and supply chain information. To avoid visible holes on shelves, retailers will increase the use of robotics to correlate inventory data with POS, warehouse management and order management systems.”
    4) Independent, regional grocers adopt robots with increased agility and speed
    I’ve been writing about the migration of robots to mid- and even small-sized business for the better part of a decade, and grocery stores might be the crowning case-in-point. As I wrote earlier this year, even bodegas are now able to use automation technologies that debuted just a couple years ago in major chains. 
    “Most grocers test any technology they bring into their stores before widespread deployments,” says Rowland. “In 2020, independents like Woodman’s Markets, increased their deployments of in-store robots while larger entities like Walmart scaled back. Not only do independent, regional grocers have greater freedom and agility to trial new technologies, they’re also keen to automate wherever possible.”
    5) Issues with labor shortages will continue
    It may be hard to remember this far back, but we entered 2020 with a tight labor market. Even with all the COVID-related layoffs, it’s not clear that’s going away.
    “As the labor market continues to tighten, retailers increasingly will look for ways to automate previously manual, mundane tasks,” says Rowland, perhaps touching a nerve for automation alarmists. “Multipurpose robots shine when it comes to oft-dreaded shelf scans, performing scans in hours instead of days and with up to 95% accuracy. Let’s face it, no employee wants to perform mind-numbing, tedious tasks, so let the robots do it—they’ll never get bored or distracted.”
    6) Data-driven insights necessitate seamless integration 
    “The more comfortable retailers become with autonomous robots roaming store aisles safely alongside shoppers and employees, the faster they can redirect attention to what matters most—the ability to elevate customer satisfaction while increasing store revenue and profitability.”
    What we’re talking about here is store scanning robots. This past year saw Bossa Nova lose a contract to Walmart that had been the sector’s favorite case study, but that shouldn’t tarnish the broader outlook or need for the technology. 
    “To accomplish this, however, retailers need to connect the dots between shelf-scanning results and corresponding department, category, vendor, sell-through and pricing data.”
    7) Sensors, drones and fixed cameras become the ideal robot accessory
    Can somebody say technology convergence? The story of robotics over the last decade has been one of falling sensor prices and rapid technology convergence. Will that change in the year ahead? In a word: Nope.
    “In 2021, it’s highly likely that autonomous robots will be teamed with other in-store technologies, such as fixed cameras, drones and all types of sensors, to enhance data-collection capabilities. It’s all about attaining real-time visibility, especially in those hard to reach, hard to see places. A bevy of sensors will enhance a robot’s “sensing” abilities, including detection of certain gases emitted when foods lose freshness or are stored improperly.”
    8) 5G will have a profound impact
    “Investments—of substantial size—in the latest wireless technology are going to pay off in many aspects of retail as it promises to unleash new experiences. Mega-trending 5G is poised to deliver unheralded speed and bandwidth to ensure shared visibility of retail data without impacting other in-store network operations. Expect 5G to go from pilot to production phase throughout the retail industry.”
    9) The M&A scene will remain active
    There’s an interesting financial story behind this technology story, and it has to do with the fact that grocery chains are rapidly merging to compete with Amazon and Walmart. That’s creating an interesting need for data, which automation solutions can provide in a scalable way.
    “An increased frequency of mergers and acquisitions in the grocery sector will remain in the forecast. This is exemplified by the recent news of Ahold Delhaize acquiring FreshDirect along with HelloFresh’s acquisition of rival Factor75. Meanwhile, Food Lion secured FTC clearance to acquire 62 Bi-Lo/Harveys supermarket stores. As M&A activity continues, so does the need to integrate disparate data from different legacy systems to ensure end-to-end operational visibility.” More