December 9, 2022

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Love your Curiosity

Here’s a home robot that actually looks useful: a self-driving shelf

Most home robots unveiled at CES tend to over-promise and under-deliver. Every year, we’re treated to staged demos of prototype “robot butlers” that always fail to materialize as real products. But two new bots created by a startup named Labrador Systems look like they’ll break this cycle. Why? Because the company has kept things simple — extremely simple — by building what are essentially self-driving shelves.

Labrador’s robots, named Caddie and Retriever, are designed to help around the house by ferrying goods. They’re both about the size of a side-table and come equipped with wheels and sensors that let them navigate your home. Owners will set a number of “bus-stops” for the machines (e.g. “in the kitchen” and “by the couch”) and the robots will move between these locations on command, automatically steering around obstacles and people. Both bots can be directed by apps or using verbal commands via an Alexa integration.

The robots’ max load is 25 pounds, or around 11 kilograms. They move at a steady walking pace and recharge themselves automatically overnight. The big difference between the two machines is that Retriever can raise and lower itself and has a pair of conveyor-belt like arms that lets it grab trays (if they’ve been placed in a suitable location). But the selling point for both is the same: “move stuff from A to B.”

The Caddie and Retriever robots can carry up to 25lbs (11kg).
Image: Labrador Systems

Although the robots could be useful to anyone, they’re designed primarily to help people with mobility problems; the elderly, and individuals with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s or arthritis. Mike Dooley, CEO of Labrador, says he was inspired to develop them after seeing his own mother move from walking unaided, to using a cane, to a wheelchair.

“I noticed when she was using the walker or the cane, her hands were becoming her extra pair of legs. She didn’t have them free any more,” Dooley tells The Verge. In such a scenario, he says, a robot like Caddie could be incredibly useful just by assisting with simple tasks: moving washing to the laundry, dirty plates to the kitchen, or a book and a pair of glasses to the couch.

Dooley says is mother is now “90 years old and still around, but she’s full time in a wheelchair or a hospital bed and getting caregivers twice a day.” In this scenario, Labrador’s Retriever robot might help out by not only moving items around, but grabbing trays with useful items from tables and cabinets.

In a live-streamed demo, I saw the Retriever robot wheel itself up to a fridge which had been retrofitted with motors on its door. The fridge swung open and the robot used its arms to slide a tray out from a shelf in the refrigerator and carry it over to another location. Dooley says Labrador will offer this sort of retrofitted set-up to customers, allowing them to create routines that offer extra independence to those who need regular care.

“A caregiver could be there in the morning, and set up stuff so that somebody has good quality of life when they’re gone,” says Dooley. He gives the example of placing a lunchtime meal in a refrigerator that Retriever can then fetch in response to a voice command.

The machines’ simplicity of purpose is informed by Dooley’s experience in the world of robotics. He was previously the first product manager for Lego Mindstorms, the company’s hugely popular toy robot kit. “My charter was to sell 10 to 15,000 units of that kit, and we ended up doing over a million,” he says. “That’s a claim to fame that really impresses six year olds.” After that he helped launch a robot swiffer named Mint, with the parent company then acquired by Roomba-creator iRobot, and the underlying tech becoming the foundation for its Braava range of mops.

This work showed him the benefits of keeping robots simple by narrowing down their functionality. Many home robots fail before they’ve even launched because they try to do too much, promising customers they’ll be emptying the dishwasher or vacuuming the carpet — tasks that are extremely challenging for machines to complete even within tightly-controlled lab conditions, let alone the ever-changing chaos of the average home.

Caddie and Retriever, by comparison, have fewer moving parts and are designed to work primarily along pre-set paths. Labrador systems is exploring adding more open-ended functionality like manual control and “follow me” mode, but Dooley says the company is happier focusing on more constrained use-cases. “We have this simple mantra, of keeping it very controllable and very understandable,” he says. The machines also use off-the-shelf parts for navigation (mainly infrared and depth sensors — no lidar) and take advantage of recent advances in augmented reality to navigate users’ homes. “It’s the same tech that means you can have Pokémon look like they’re in your room, jumping around,” says Dooley.

Despite this simplicity, the machines aren’t yet ready for consumers to use. Introducing any automated system to the home is a difficult task (just think of all the ways Roombas can go wrong), and the pressing need to not make mistakes is even greater when the machines are designed to help those with mobility challenges. Labrador started conducting pilots of the Caddie robot last year, placing machines in people’s homes starting in February 2021. But the company is going to be conducting more tests, and only aims to be in full production of the machines “by the second half of 2023.”

Labrador’s robots could supplement the work of caregivers.
Image: Labrador Systems

Starting today, interested customers can put down a fully-refundable $250 deposit for a Caddie or Retriever unit. Prices for the machines will be $1500 upfront with 36-month payment plants. That’s $99 a month for Caddie and $149 a month for Retriever, giving total costs of $5,000 and $6,800 for the two machines. After payments have finished, customers will own the bots and be able to keep using their current functionality, but they’ll have to pay Labrador an as-yet-undecided fee for an extended warranty and new feature support.

In our interview, Dooley treads the line between confidence in the machines and humility regarding the difficulty of home automation. Many — if not most — new home robots fail, and few are as ambitious as Caddie and Retriever. But he says the experience with pilot users has been incredibly encouraging. “It’s an entirely new concept, but they say it’s almost like nothing to use it, in terms of thought — you just do it.”

And if the technology works out, it could be incredibly useful for those who can access it, helping the West’s aging population keep independent for longer, and reducing the burden on caregivers who do incredible and under-recognized work for so many.

“We’re not trying to hype this, because there’s way too much hype in robotics as it is,” says Dooley. “We really want to make something that has a practical impact, because if it does it can make a difference in people’s lives.”