Walmart tests new robot at Burbank store

A new Bossa Nova robot rolls down an aisle at Walmart in Burbank on Wednesday. The robot, with technology similar to self-driving cars to prevent it from bumping into anything, moves up and down store aisles scanning shelves for inventory that needs restocking.
(Tim Berger / Burbank Leader)

Artificial-intelligence devices seem to be everywhere nowadays.

An increasing number of consumers are purchasing Google Home or Amazon Echo devices to use their smart-assistant capabilities, whereas automobile manufactures and some ride-sharing companies are working to create fully automated vehicles.

Discount retailer Walmart has also been looking to see how it can incorporate an artificial-intelligence device into the retail market to make some of the day-to-day operations at its thousands of stores in the United States more efficient, and the company is close to turning that vision into reality.

On Wednesday, store officials gathered at the Burbank Walmart Supercenter at 1301 N. Victory Place to demonstrate a new shelf-scanning robot developed by Bossa Nova Robotics.

The job of the roughly 6-foot-5 robot is simple: scan the shelves and let employees know when a product is out of stock, if an item is misplaced or if it is mislabeled, said Tiffany Wilson, a Walmart spokeswoman.

“It scans each aisle in about two minutes, so it can scan dozens of shelves in less than an hour,” she said, adding that this job would usually be done by a store employee. “It’s scanning and looking for all of those things and, in real time, can tell associates what parts of the store need the most attention.”

Debra Weber Kemmsies, of Hollywood Hills, takes a photo for her friends of a new Bossa Nova robot at Walmart.
(Tim Berger / Burbank Leader )

The robot, which looks like a trash bin on wheels with a periscope jutting out of its top, gathers its data by using dozens of lights, cameras, both 2D and 3D, as well as lasers to recognize the products and bar codes it is scanning. As it goes down each aisle, it creates images of the shelves and relays that information to store employees, said Martin Hitch, chief business officer for Bossa Nova.

The device is also equipped with multiple proximity sensors that allow it to navigate the store by itself without any help from an employee. Hitch said the robot is continuously scanning its surroundings to identify any obstacles in its path.

If it senses something in its way, such a shoppers, carts or product palettes, it will stop and figure out the best way to move around the obstacle.

Hitch added that if the robot detects a congested aisle, it will move on to the next available aisle, while keeping track that it needs to go back and scan the previously blocked section.

“It’s not about zig-zagging across the store,” Hitch said. “It’s about scanning the shelves first and foremost.”

Since the robot is still in its testing phase, it is only responsible for scanning about 30 aisles in the store, said Panthi Patel, Burbank Walmart manager.

For the roughly three months it has been in the store, the device has not been an issue for staff or customers, Patel said, adding that shoppers are either curious about the robot or dismiss it to focus on their shopping.

Patel said he sees the potential of the robot because it will free up his employees to focus on stocking the shelves to ensure customers find what they need.

“This is a unique approach because we want to use technology to take care of our customers while still having human involvement and that human touch,” Patel said.

Bossa Nova, which is based in San Francisco, has been working with Walmart on this project for about three years, first implementing an early version of the device in a store in rural Pennsylvania, Hitch said.

The retailer recently decided to expand the pilot program to 50 stores across the United States, including the new Burbank Walmart Supercenter, which opened in June 2016. The autonomous robot has been at the Medic City store since January, Wilson said.

The shelf-scanning device has also been implemented at the Walmart Supercenters in Palmdale, Lancaster and Santa Clarita.

Michael Dimente, of North Hollywood, sneaks by a new Bossa Nova robot.
(Tim Berger / Burbank Leader )

Hitch said he understands there will be concerns about the robot taking away jobs from its human counterparts, which is why the device has been engineered to have a symbiotic relationship with workers.

Should Walmart choose to use the robot in its other stores, it would eliminate the need for an employee to manually go through each aisle to scan each bar code and let others know which shelves need to be restocked.

Wilson said this means it would free up employees who would have had to do this task to take on other responsibilities around the store.

“We’re creating more tasks than were previously created,” Hitch said. “We don’t miss an out-of-stock [product] because it’s about extracting information from a photograph. What we are doing is creating an extra workload of tasks, which now means we have to prioritize that labor.”

However, an official from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said a major retailer like Walmart should invest in its employees rather than fully automate services.

Chelsea Connor, communications director for the organization, said if any brick-and-mortar store wants to survive in an online-shopping world, they have to invest in their storefronts and the people that work in them.

“If companies don’t train their employees well or provide them opportunities for growth, people aren’t going to be invested and they’re not going to treat their surroundings well,” she said. “If they don’t, customers are more likely not to shop there.”

Twitter: @acocarpio