New Kids with the Bots: meet BotsAndUs & Recycleyeby Grace Kneafsey
This week, Equipment Connect got to know two of the most exciting UK start-ups using robots. ?
BotsAndUs are creating a fleet of autonomous service robots to work alongside people in public spaces. In fact, you may have even interacted with one of their robots in an airport terminal..! ✈️
They told us how their name reflects their philosophy: BotsAndUs originates in “robots and us”. We have a strong belief in a future where robots and humans will co-exist, collaborating towards a better life and more efficient businesses. A world where robots liberate us from dull, repetitive and now dangerous work so we can focus on the things that truly matter.
♻️ Recycleye is bringing intelligent systems to the waste management industry. Many of us will have read about the stark realities of our global recycling rates: with a rapidly growing team eager to drive the circular economy, Recycleye are applying the latest technology to some of the most pressing issues of our time.
Check out our conversations with them below ?
? Tell us a little bit about the background to the business.
Andrei, CEO and co-founder at BotsAndUs, has been passionate about robots ever since he can remember; be it building his first circuits and robot at 5 years old or simply taking things apart. Both him and Adrian (CTO and co-founder) participated in numerous university robotics competitions, meeting each other long before they continued their studies and careers in the UK. They both wanted to do something they were passionate about because they knew that would be the only source of support and guidance when things get tough. And so, they turned passion into business.
Oana (CMO and co-founder), an experienced professional in the retail industry, brought her commercial hat to the cause, with a focus on the problem that she knew was costing the retail industry billions of dollars a year. Inadequate customer service and lack of in-store data is costing the UK retail industry at least £100bn a year. Oana ensures that BotsAndUs solutions address clear business needs and challenges.
? Your two robots are called Bo and Mim - how do you name them?
The naming process for our robots is always a team exercise.
For our customer service robot, Bo, we looked for a name that would allude to robots but not be associated with a specific gender – in line with our decision to opt for a non-humanoid design following various studies with UX designers and anthropologists.
Mim is a figure in Norse mythology renowned for knowledge and wisdom. Our retail operations robot provides unparalleled access to in-store data and business insights.
? Your products are for public spaces. Does that make it more difficult? How do you get the public to buy into the technology?
Operating in public and dynamic spaces has always been a challenge for robots, but it’s also what sets our products apart from the competition.
Most robots struggle to autonomously navigate in public spaces. We designed ours specifically for indoor crowded spaces such as airport terminals or large retail stores to maximise their operational efficiency. These types of places are often the noisiest, posing a significant challenge to Human-to-Robot interaction. We’ve made sure that our robots’ style is augmented with the best-in class voice interaction systems.
Robots do not usually communicate between each other. We have distributed AI across the robot fleet which allows the robots to collaborate amongst themselves and with others to carry out tasks. We have deliberately created a system where our robots share information and tasks so that they can easily and efficiently operate in the more challenging public spaces.
On public buy-in: we work with the retailers, the airport or the building operators to deploy our robots in public spaces, leveraging their understanding of their customers, passengers and guests. We spend significant time and resources to identify and adapt our technology with the best use case for the space. This way, we make sure end users find our robots useful and continue to interact with our technology beyond initial curiosity.
? Has the pandemic increased the demand for robotics?
Automation and robotics were already seeing an upward trend, so the pandemic has only accelerated that growth. Although retail seemed to face the gloomiest future, some segments were deemed essential – i.e. grocery, consumer electronics, DIY – and drove a real surge in the demand for robotics & AI-enabled solutions. Similarly, travel businesses shifted focus to using technology that could help provide passenger assistance in a safe manner for both passengers and staff.
The extensive media coverage of various robotics solutions (i.e. disinfection robots) being quickly developed and deployed at scale has served as another catalyst for the upward trends.
The need to quickly adapt to changes in supply chains, logistics and staff deployed has never been more acute and it’s here to stay.
♻️ So, how did it all start?
It came about from Victor (our CEO)'s phd research at Imperial. He then joined Peter, the CTO, and they founded Recycleye back in September 2019. We're now a team of 14 technologists and creatives - all passionate about the green revolution and bringing more robust infrastructure to waste management.
In 2020 we received grants from Innovate UK and the EU, as well as securing £1.2m seed funding from leading European & American venture capital firms! We deployed our first systems across the UK and French market, including pilots with two of the biggest players in the UK.
♻️ So why does waste management need automation?
The population is growing, driving consumption and waste generation globally. At the moment, the pace of waste generation exceeds sorting of waste and the ability to manage it. Material sent for sorting actually ends up in landfill, and globally we're only recycling about 8% of waste!
The UK has failed to reach its own recycling target of 50%, and so the pace of sorting in the waste management industry needs to rise.
Our model is to bring low-cost technologies to the industry, through vision systems and affordable robotics.
The vision algorithms we have developed replicate human vision. Trained using millions of images (2.6m on our database currently), a vision system can identify individual items on a conveyor belt, even down to brand. You can imagine that, as well as the sorting itself, the data gathered massively contributes to traceability & transparency in recycling too.
The systems also give live data insights, allowing users to really drill down into specific areas of their operation. This can help create optimised plants and maximise sorting. Manual picking is very expensive. Intelligent systems are the driver in creating a long-term strategy for the circular economy.
♻️ You've gone from strength to strength in just over a year! What's been the biggest challenge?
As I said, our model is to bring affordable automation to the industry. So we've had to work hard to procure components for our systems that are as effective as possible, whilst staying within our cost boundaries. This was definitely a challenge.
The Near-Infra-Red systems in the current technology used in waste industry cost around £50,000. We're now using cameras that you would find in your smartphone which are much cheaper in comparison - it's a great result.
♻️ What does 2021 hold for Recycleye?
Right now we have pilot vision systems in the UK and France, and we opened an office in Paris earlier this month! Our plan for 2021 is to expand into wider Europe.
We'll also be introducing the complimentary robot systems (which are currently at pre-sale stage), to carry out picking alongside the vision system!
Have more questions? Get in touch!
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