On a warm November afternoon, anyone who was close to Building 1 on Microsoft’s campus in Silicon Valley witnessed four, shiny white robots, weighing at 300 pounds each, patrolling in front of the building. The robots moved quietly in various directions, halting and turning to avoid walls, cars and any other obstacles. They looked intimidating yet cute at the same time, a look that is meant to support them well in their jobs, which include monitoring college and corporate campuses, schools and shopping malls. In other words, they look friendly, but not excessively friendly.
Knightscope, a Mountain View-based startup, has been developing, building and testing the K5 robot since 2013, with seven units having been built so far. The company intends to get four of the units working by the end of 2014, though they didn’t name the tech company that would be taking them on. These robots have been designed to notice irregular behavior, like someone being present in a building at night. This behavior is then reported to a remote security center. Stacy Stephens, the cofounder of Knightscope and the company’s vice president of marketing and sales, explained that these robots would be able to carry out the monotonous and sometimes dangerous jobs, thus permitting law enforcement and private security – depending on application – to focus on more strategic work.
Do carry out the job of a human security guard, the K5 employs sensors, electronic motors, cameras and navigation equipment. Its dome-shaped body contains all this equipment as well as a computer and a large, rechargeable battery. The four HD cameras are located on each side of the robot. It also has a weather sensor to measure barometric pressure, temperature and carbon dioxide levels; a camera that in cause for license plate recognition; and four microphones. Using Wi-Fi or wireless data networks, the robots can communicate with each other but also with the people remotely monitoring their cameras and other data sources.
The robots are able to navigate their way around the designated patrol area and avoid any obstacles in their way thanks to a GPS system and a laser ranging instrument. When the K5 is taken to a new location, such as the Microsoft campus where they patrolled at the start of the month before the CEO and cofounder of Knightscope, Mr. William Santana Li, made a speech at a tech event, a person takes the robot around showing it the area it will be patrolling it and giving it an opportunity to learn about its environment. Stephens explains that the K5 is given a base map in this way, and it begins to build on that map.
Knightscope is one of an increasing number of companies that are employing robots to assist in work humans do traditionally. In some cases, robots replace the human entirely. And this trend is growing at an ever-faster rate as robots are advancing, becoming increasingly agile, more intelligent, and easier to adapt to certain tests. Though most robots are engaged in work on assembly lines, Knightscope is one of the few to believe they are capable of performing many other tasks.
While there’s little chance of Knightscope replacing a large number of security guards in the near-future, especially considering that the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that more than a million were in employment last year, the $6.25 Knightscope plans to charge per hour will likely tempt some schools and companies to give the K5 a go, considering the amount is less than half of the hourly wage guards are paid.
These robots come with a battery that has the potential to last approximately 24 hours with a single charge. However, the K5 is designed to watch its battery life and go over to a charging pad when it needs to, with the refueling process taking between 15 and 20 minutes.
The K5 appears friendly and doesn’t come with weapons. However, that doesn’t mean anyone should attempt to mess with it. If someone walks in front of it, it wills stop suddenly, and if someone attempts to stop it from doing its work, after a while the on-board alarm will begin to make a chirping sound in warning while the unit sends a low-level alert to the remote center. If it is still being detained, an ear-piercing alarm will start up and it will send another warning to the remote center that will get the operator to check out what’s going on around the robot using browser-based software.
However, if someone requires help and a K5 is in the vicinity, there is a button close to the top of its head that when pressed will call for assistance remotely. Stephens says the have a few dozen potential customers who are interested, including a number of security companies who are tired of dealing with the high turnover in guards. Knightscope hopes it will start placing K5s with different companies in the first half of 2015.
The company’s vision is for these robots to be used in much more than traditional security applications, including things such as an app that would allow college students to ask a robot to accompany them across the campus at night.
Knightscope, though, has a number of obstacles to overcome, both on a cultural and technological level, if this project is to work. First of all, the company needs to prove their effectiveness over time, and then people have to feel at ease with them around. The company also has to put a little work into the K5’s balance as the robot cannot get up if it falls.