The little robot follows Melonee Wise around a makeshift warehouse as she picks up boxes of cereal and packages of soap and drops them into a crate atop the machine. Freight, as Wise’s startup Fetch Robotics calls it, may be a machine, but its careful tracking of her movements recalls nothing so much as a dutiful dog.
The robot, which Wise demonstrated in a mock warehouse in a corner of the company’s San Jose headquarters, is one of two wheeled models introduced by Fetch in April as a way to automate warehouses and manufacturing buildings. While Freight is intended as an aid to human workers, the namesake Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, potentially replacing people.
Wise’s company is one of several robotics companies betting that robots, which have slowly found homes in auto plants and retail warehouses, are finally ready to roll out in much larger numbers. The CEO says in an interview I conducted for a recent profile of the young roboticist and entrepreneur that smaller and faster computers, improvements in artificial intelligence, and cheaper sensors are all combining to make robots cheaper (in Fetch’s case, tens of thousands of dollars) and more capable.
Fetch is one of the most closely watched robotics startups thanks largely to Wise, a key contributor at the seminal robotics incubator Willow Garage, where she helped design and build several models, and a team of robotics veterans she has assembled. Fetch, which in June raised a $20 million round of funding from Softbank and previous investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has sold a few robots to pilot commercial customers. But Wise has bigger ambitions to create a platform on which software developers can create new applications. “They have a chance to create the backbone of autonomous robots,” says Shasta Ventures Managing Director Rob Coneybeer.
The blunt-speaking Wise, whose voice suggests a mellower version of the comedian Paula Poundstone, talked about how she got into robotics, what she hopes to accomplish at Fetch, how she aims to compete against Google and other companies snapping up robotics companies and talent, and the challenges of fulfilling her dream of a robot in every home. Following is an edited version of our conversation:
Q: How did you decide to focus on that particular area, given that you’ve been trying all along to build for pretty broad application, even in the home?
A: At Willow, we spent two years trying to figure out what the next thing in robotics would be. The first year we tried to understand if there was any play in the home. The answer was a resounding no.
A: The expectations are too high and the price tolerance is way too low. So people would love to have a robot that would do their dishes or tidy their house, but they want all of that for $500 or less. Even when you challenge that notion by saying, well, you know the Roomba you bought last month was $850, they’re like, oh no, I bought that on sale.
There was this big hype about at-home telepresence. Everyone wants to put telepresence inside someone else’s home, like their mother’s, but no one actually wants it in their home. They don’t like the privacy challenges.
Q: What’s attractive about logistics and manufacturing?
A: We strongly felt that logistics and materials handling and manufacturing was very scalable. There’s a strong need for it. One of the things that sold me on it is there’s a 600,000-person job gap right now for logistics and manufacturing. They just don’t have enough people right now. Turnover is really bad. They also want to increase performance, and people have a rate limit. They get injured. There’s shrinkage. When you pile all these things up, there’s a great case for robots. …