The combination of people and technology is helping make stores more comfortable to shop.
Walmart is extending a shelf-scanning robot trial run to 50 further stores. Machines from Bossa Nova Robotics will roam the aisles to check for stock levels, pricing, and displaced items, preserving human workers the hassle of checking everything themselves. There will be specialists on-site just in case, but the bots are entirely autonomous. They can dodge around barriers and make notes to return later if their path is entirely blocked.
Walmart emphasizes that the robots are there to supplement humans, not replace them -- to reduce drudgery and the costs that go with it. This helps workers get to the task of filling empty shelves, and that's a job that the company doesn't see ending anytime soon given the difficulty robots still have when taking objects. "Store associates will always be better at that," said Walmart's Martin Hitch to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The chief of Bossa Nova rival Simbe Robotics, Brad Bogolea, noted that shelf checks could cost a retailer hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Nevertheless expensive the robots may be, they could pay for themselves very fast.
Whether or not the robots see more extensive use will, unsurprisingly, hinge on the success of this broader trial. Initial results are positive, and given that Walmart has already made a point of using technology to automate processes like grocery pickups, it's hard to believe the company is turning robots down. The central question is whether or not robots will remain complimentary. After all, Walmart is fond of decreasing costs whenever possible and doesn't correctly put its staff on pedestals. While jobs are protected from mechanization for the foreseeable future, it's easy to imagine robots finally taking over those functions that don't require human-to-human communication.