This article written by Evan Ackerman originally appeared on IEEE Spectrum.
Robosecurity Is Here: How Robots Can Save Money and Lives
This article originally appeared on Security Sales & Integrations’ website on May 11th, 2020. The original article can be found here.
Security robots are quickly becoming an extension of smart buildings and smart organizations. Discover the latest robosecurity trends, use cases and opportunities.
For the past 100 years, the capability of an individual security officer has remained relatively unchanged. Meanwhile, technology continues to improve at a blistering pace, getting better and cheaper with each passing year. Robots are a quintessential technology product.
A robot’s worst day on the job is its first day — it improves with every new piece of data, each additional robot deployed, every over-the-air software update and every additional remote human operator that brings their unique wisdom to the table.
Robots can deal with the dull, dirty and dangerous parts of your customers’ security programs while their core people focus on solving higher-order problems. This is an old idea.
Robots have captured the imagination of security directors for decades — dating back to the very first mobile robots in the mid-1960s.
The vision was simple: superhuman observation & reporting, the ability to respond in real-time, and vastly cheaper and more consistent than human security officers. Today that vision is a reality; security robots are being widely deployed at an ever-increasing rate.
Why Now for Robots?
The transition from 1960s-era robots to today wasn’t instantaneous, but something significant happened in the past five-10 years: All of the necessary component technologies to build a security robot became commonplace and economical.
- Wireless technologies such as WiFi, cellular and Bluetooth became ubiquitous. Forthcoming advances in 5G and satellite-based Internet will unlock even more capabilities.
- Video teleconferencing became common-place, and then critical as the world dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. Work-from-home and social distancing trends are redefining the workplace — and robots are a natural part of that equation.
- Mobility platforms and electric vehicles received heavy R&D investments, resulting in improvements to electric motors and batteries technologies.
- Sensors experienced profound advances. Technology companies invested billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle technologies, including safety-critical sensors such as depth cameras and light detection and ranging (LIDAR). Sensors that once cost $20,000+ can now be purchased for as little as $200. Other sensors, such as cameras and environmental sensors continue to improve too.
- Artificial intelligence & machine learning made massive leaps in capability with advances in deep learning and convolutional neural network algorithms. Being able to detect, recognize and identify people and anomalies with high confidence was a game-changer for security robots.
- Robot arms have dropped from $100,000+ to less than $15,000. Companies are still in the early days of adding manipulation to security robots. Cobalt Robotics was among the first to develop systems that can open and close doors, press elevator buttons, and generally reach out and touch the world. Expect this trend to accelerate.
Given all of the above, it’s shocking how much mysticism people ascribe to the idea of a “robot.” It should not be surprising that we can scale up a Roomba vacuum cleaner, wirelessly connect it to the Internet, add hard drives for data storage, add a screen for video conferencing, and add sensors with a bit of AI and machine learning to detect basic anomalies, navigate through a building, and avoid falling into fountains.
It’s not rocket science; it’s good old-fashioned engineering. That’s just the technology; ultimately it boils down to workflows, use cases and ROI.
Autonomous Data Machines (ADMs)
There are a host of situations where an autonomously patrolling robot can provide value by acting as a “Roomba with a camera.” For example, a patrolling robot can serve as a deterrent, and the video and environmental data can be used for investigative purposes after an incident.
This capability is basic table stakes for a security robot. Patrols can be updated or modified on the fly, and data can be streamed back to a remote command center for real-time viewing.
This is supported by virtually all security robot providers: Cobalt Robotics, Knightscope, Robotic Assisted Devices, Turing Video, etc.
Anomaly Detection & Human Augmentation
The real power of a security robot comes from anomaly detection and human augmentation. Imagine your customer having their most capable security officer spread across a dozen locations all at once, allowing them to focus their attention at precisely the right time and place to effect a response.
For example, Cobalt’s robots use AI and machine learning to detect anomalies — anything from unidentified people, motion, unusual sounds, open doors, leaks, spills, hazardous gases, overflowing trashcans, unattended devices, unlocked computers, suspicious packages, dirty whiteboards, medical emergencies, etc.
When one of these anomalies is detected, the robot determines whether to notify a remote person to respond. That person could be a security officer, on or offsite monitoring center operator, intelligence analyst, customer service rep, hostage negotiator, medical expert, facilities manager, safety director, etc.
You get unwavering attention, perfect recall, superhuman sensing and the collective wisdom of an entire team of people in every location where the robots are present. That flexibility unlocks a vast array of use cases.
Robot Use Cases
If you delve into the use case for human guards, you’ll get dozens of answers about the tasks that guards perform. It usually boils down to some form of “observe and report” with a few added tasks sprinkled in.
Those tasks are written into a set of “post orders” — instructions about how to react when certain scenarios are encountered — and then guards are trained to execute those tasks to the best of their ability.
Robots are very similar. The robot starts with a default set of post orders. Customers trivially adapt those post orders by doing a site assessment and walkthrough or on-the-fly at any time. The robot will faithfully execute those post orders like a computer program — 24/7, without complaint, and without fail. Let’s delve into a few use case examples.
Modern sensor technology has far surpassed human sensing. Mount those sensors on a mobile robot and have robots share data with one another, and you’ve created one of the most effective observation and collections platforms imaginable. You can obtain verifiable, unambiguous data about what occurred at any given time without resorting to manual data entry or logging.
You can look back at data over years to uncover trends and provide various forms of business intelligence. For instance, Cobalt robots patrol a multi-building site spanning more than 1.2 million square feet. Last year, the robots at this location performed 14,247 door checks and found that critical doors were left ajar more than 600 times.
Based on that analysis, the client installed new door closure mechanisms and focused additional attention on that building during their annual Security Week activities. Compliance massively improved during the following months. That is just one of thousands of examples of observation and reporting use cases.
In the event of an emergency, a robot can assist in a number of ways. Consider some examples:
- Robbery: At a retail jewelry store, there was a smash and grab incident. Onsite security personnel were not authorized to intervene due to policy. A Cobalt robot was sent in to get situational awareness and potentially intervene. It turned out that the perpetrator was no longer onsite, so a remote human operator was able to video chat through the robot with nearby tenants — requesting that they shelter in place and notifying them that police were on their way.
- Carbon monoxide: A robot detected an elevated level of carbon monoxide (CO) in a biopharma laboratory. While the command center was triaging the issue, another remote operator was able to safely evacuate the building without putting additional personnel in harm’s way.
- Slip & fall: A robot detected a person laying on the floor at 2 a.m. in a relatively empty commercial office building. The remote operator came on and immediately inquired if the person needed medical assistance. Thankfully, the individual was unharmed; they indicated that they’d tripped, though no trip hazards were identified nearby.
The combination of ground-truth data and the flexibility of the remote human being is profound. Cobalt’s robots have responded to breaking and enterings, fire alarms, floods and all manner of emergencies.
Nevertheless, there are limitations. Robots cannot handle all emergency scenarios, but they can support in a number of meaningful ways — often just getting awareness of an incident that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed.
Cobalt has robots deployed at Willis Tower (colloquially, the Sears Tower) in Chicago. While performing security functions, the robot and remote personnel also provide concierge and customer service support; engaging with guests, providing directions, displaying promotions, etc.
The robot’s ability to ride up and down the elevators means that it can adapt to traffic patterns in the building to ensure maximum utility at any given time. This is just one example of many where the robot fulfills multiple functions.
Particularly relevant in laboratory, warehouse and manufacturing settings, robots automatically check for compliance with various OSHA rules. These include trip hazards, personal protective equipment such as safety glasses and hardhats, fire extinguisher checks, visual inspections of eyewash stations, etc.
The data provided by the robot gives safety directors a measurable baseline to gauge compliance, understand the effectiveness of new safety initiatives and demonstrate a commitment to a safe work environment.
Intellectual property is one of the most critical assets for any modern company. Companies (including robot suppliers) are required to adhere to cybersecurity regulations such as ISO-27001, SOC2 and HIPAA.
These cyber regulations have a physical component: Clean desk and screen policies, no unattended devices and cleaned whiteboards. Part of the default post orders for a Cobalt robot deployed in this scenario is to detect and document lapses.
Robots can also help with wireless signal intelligence: WiFi and cellular signal strength heatmaps, locations of rogue wireless access points, and the presence and identity of nearby electronic devices through techniques such as MAC address fingerprinting.
Robots automatically look for leaks and spills, build maps of environmental data (temperature, humidity, hazardous gases), check for overflowing trashcans and file facilities support tickets.
At one customer site, Cobalt’s temperature maps were used to automatically adjust the building temperature profile to make occupants feel more comfortable. At another site, a robot preemptively detected and reported a water leak, saving the client $300,000 in estimated damages.
In short: robots are a tool — similar to cameras, access control, and guards. The ROI is simple: Robots are 30%-60% cheaper than a manned guard. To be clear, robots will not replace all guards. The robots of today are not going to perform CPR, serve as armed executive protection officers, etc.
Rather, robot deployments fall into roughly three categories:
- New coverage: Many locations would benefit from a fulltime presence in their space, but the $20-$30/hour fully loaded cost of a guard was never economical. Robots offer a compelling new option, and the additional use cases further add to the overall ROI.
- Guard enhancement: Robots can help reduce overall staffing levels while maintaining or extending coverage. Sometimes this means keeping guards located in critical locations and letting robots cover everywhere else. Sometimes the robots provide coverage during mandatory break and meal periods. Sometimes human beings, no matter how well-intentioned, are the biggest threat; in which case robots are placed in the critical locations and guards patrol the perimeter.
- Direct guard replacement: It happens. Previously, manned guards were the only alternative to simple, stationary cameras. In some instances, a guard is overkill given new robot capabilities.
An additional benefit of robot security solutions is the mobility itself. Unlike most security technology buildouts, security robots can be relocated and repurposed on-demand as businesses adapt and change.
This flexibility saves clients huge sums of time and was instrumental in the recent COVID-19 crisis response. Robots are not a silver bullet; they are one part of an overall security ecosystem. As such, security robot providers work closely with guard firms, integrators, and architects.
Dr. Travis Deyle is Founder and CEO of Cobalt Robotics, serving safety & security, facilities management and HR applications.