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Getting Retail Robots Up to Speed

Badger, AT&T test technology on faster networks
badger technologies
Photograph courtesy courtesy Badger

Business applications such as robotics and automation will drive adoption of forthcoming 5G networks—and retail supermarkets could be a key proving ground.

To that end, Jabil Corp.’s Badger robots are undergoing a test of 5G speeds in a multi-access edge computing environment at the AT&T Foundry in Plano, Texas. Badger, best-known for providing the fleet of in-store robots now patrolling the aisles of Ahold Delhaize stores, and AT&T officials say the test will accelerate the business benefits and capabilities of robots in stores, allowing them do more faster by easing the strain on store networks that currently collect data from robots utilizing the same store WiFi that their customers use in-store on their phones.

“In this world, finding more efficiency is absolutely critical for retailers,” Tim Rowland, CEO of Nicholasville, Ky.-based Badger Technologies, said in an interview with WGB.

Badger’s fleet, now in 500 Ahold Delhaize stores where they are known as “Marty,” is currently being utilized primarily to spot hazards on store floors. While that application allows stores to more effectively deploy labor and reduces product loss and slip-and-fall incidents, other potential benefits of those robots—notably, their ability to scan shelves for inventory and pricing—are held back by the speed at which stores can process the high-resolution images and data they provide, Rowland said.

Ahold Delhaize officials have said they are using Marty only to spot spills “at the present time.” Rowland told WGB that Ahold Delhaize officials have expressed concern about processing speeds for tasks such as pricing and inventory management. As for Badger, Rowland said, “we will max out the performance on whatever network we’re on.”

The AT&T Foundry is the Dallas-based telecom giant’s innovation lab. It is now testing Badger performance using high-speed 5G cellular networks in a multi-access edge computing (MEC) environment, or a cloud-based IT environment close to the end user, which reduces network congestion and improves processing speed.

The goal, said Philip Hartfield, VP of retail industry marketing for AT&T,  is to demonstrate how using 5G millimeter wave spectrum and edge computing could provide Badger Technologies with the lower latency and high throughput required to process and share vast amounts of data while running concurrently with other in-store network applications.

The solution could also help Badger increase data processing by providing a more private network connection than typically associated with in-store WiFi, Hartfield said. This will give Badger more control over what data travels beyond the walls of the store and what data stays on-site, which effectively addresses a mounting privacy and security concerns among retailers.

 “In-building cellular solutions, including 5G and edge computing, are critical drivers of digital transformation for retailers,” Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer of AT&T Business, said in a release. “These technologies will eventually equip robots with both the compute power and lower latency needed to increase revenue, improve the in-store experience and elevate employees to better assist customers. Badger Technologies’ robots can help retailers make sure they have products in stock and in the right place, increasing customer satisfaction. That leads to increased revenue. That’s the power of data.”

Hartfield said there was no specific timetable to roll out the technology in stores but anticipated  it would arrive on a store-by-store basis.

Badger robots rolled out to 500 Ahold Delhaize-owned stores last year in what officials called the largest such rollout in U.S. retail. Other companies, including Schnuck Markets and Walmart, are utilizing similar solutions to aid inventory and pricing checks, thus improving shelf conditions and freeing employees to sales-based tasks.

Rowland said the Badger units are testing in additional retail locations but declined to identify them.

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