- Robotics startup Cobalt offers security teams bots that patrol offices and report anomalies.
- These robots have been used for everything from badge checks to crowd control to evictions.
- Despite monitoring concerns, security teams are concerned with the bots’ ability to protect employees.
- This article is part of the “Enterprise Tech Blueprint,” a series that explores the strategies used by leading companies in innovation and growth.
For some, the phrase “robot security guard” conjures up images of the wretched vision machines or the omnipresent “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
While robotics startup Cobalt doesn’t pose much of a threat, it makes 5-foot-1-tall robots to replace human security guards. They patrol offices and report any noticeable anomalies. Cobalt’s human security analysts can also communicate with office workers through a screen on the bot and assess the most complex situations the bots face.
Travis Deyle and Erik Schluntz, former employees of Google and SpaceX, founded the startup in 2016. The two quit their jobs and decided they wanted to start a company together but didn’t know what to focus on. They decided to interview a lot of people in a variety of roles and asked them, “If you had a magic wand to fix any problem in your job, what would you fix?”
After interviewing multiple security teams, they learned that these teams wish they had bots to complete tasks by heart for the human guards.
At first, Dale and Schlontz were surprised, as they wondered how the robots would be able to stop an intruder. Security teams told Deyle and Schluntz that due to security concerns, human guards were not allowed to make physical contact with intruders either. With this knowledge, the founders realized that bots could fulfill the monitoring and reporting duties of security guards at lower costs.
Cobalt robots are equipped with more than 60 sensors, including thermal cameras, temperature and humidity sensors, and badge readers. Bots are integrated into the company’s safety net, allowing it to respond automatically to alarms triggered. Using their knowledge of past security incidents, the bots can determine if a situation should be escalated—for example, if the bot detects a broken window versus a false alarm.
According to Mike LeBlanc, Cobalt’s president and chief operating officer, the company’s value proposition has become more visible during the pandemic, as robots can replace unwieldy security teams that are no longer necessary in empty offices. In large workplaces, robots have been able to more efficiently patrol multiple floors and respond faster to alarms. In small offices that only require one guard, robots can take on all the security tasks, from managing visitors to escorting employees to their cars late at night.
“There is a high turnover of security guards,” LeBlanc said. “So bots are really able to fill these jobs at a lower cost. People would love to be able to automate this and get the same thing every time, rather than paying someone more where they will have varied results.”
Not just a security robot
Many Cobalt customers are finding innovative ways to use their bots outside of security.
When workers returned to the office, DoorDash, for example, checked the temperature sensors of employee robots for fever and used its badge readers to see if COVID-19 wellness questionnaires had been completed, according to Chris Sherry, DoorDash’s global head of safety. And security.
Even with the easing of pandemic lockdown measures such as mandatory hiding and people returning to offices, security teams have found new uses for robots.
The director of physical security for startup Ally Financial, Bill Davis, said cobalt robots alerted workers to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide after contractors cleaned an enclosed parking garage with gas-powered electric washers. In another example, the Cobalt bot detected a person impersonating another employee after a routine badge check.
Ralph Parks, chief safety and security officer for automation company Woven Planet, told Insider he’s been holding regular weekly meetings with the Cobalt team to brainstorm use cases for the bots. His company has used robots for everything from air quality checks during the 2020 California wildfires to a WiFi strength indicator to crowd control during office evictions.
Employee privacy concerns
While security teams have embraced the Cobalt bots, they say they have faced employee concerns about surveillance and privacy.
Parks said the security teams’ real priority is to protect employees.
“I got it so many times,” Parks said. “They say, ‘Are you Big Brother?'” ”
LeBlanc told Insider that Cobalt’s bots were designed with these concerns in mind. He said the robots look like “a piece of high-end office furniture” to fit into the “frictionless environment” of modern tech companies and help them blend into the background.
“The buildings are really full of cameras everywhere,” LeBlanc said. “People all over these places are already being monitored by security, so there’s really no difference between having some cameras on a robot.”
Other startups in this field have faced controversy. Police robotic startup Nightscope has found itself in hot water after several reported incidents, including a robot dropping a toddler, running over his foot, and ignoring a woman’s last cries for help.
Both LeBlanc and the security team said the key to gaining acceptance from employees is education about the purpose of the bots.
“There’s Big Brother who’s spying on people, and then there’s Big Brother where you’re walking down a dark alley and there’s a bunch of bad guys coming at you,” Parks said. “That’s the purpose of robots.”
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