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Why this robot may soon be cruising down your grocery store’s aisles

The 30-pound Tally slowly moves down the center of aisles and takes photos to determine what is out of stock. (Simbe Robotics)
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As long as consumers love low prices a trend will continue — the evaporating human employee.

Tuesday a Silicon Valley start-up unveiled Tally, a robot designed to help retailers track their shelves far better than a human employee could. Robots like Tally can’t do everything a person can, but they offer a reminder of how machines increasingly excel at roles long held by humans.

The idea behind Tally is to take inventory faster in a given store. Simbe Robotics chief executive Brad Bogolea says the robot could scan a CVS, Walgreens or small grocery store in 30 or 40 minutes. Tally can capture data on 15,000 to 20,000 products an hour, far more than a human employee.

All businesses want to automate tasks and be more efficient, which lets them offer more competitive prices. As computer and sensor prices drop, robots are becoming a more appealing option. Last year home improvement chain Lowe’s introduced robots that could guide customers to whatever item they wanted to buy.

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The 38-inch tall Tally is programmed to navigate a store while stopping to take photos of shelves. These are uploaded to the cloud and compared against an idealized representation of the store to see if products are where they should be, and are properly priced. Computer-vision algorithms analyze what is out of stock, which products are facing the wrong direction and what is misplaced. A store manager then receives a report.

“Hey, three facings of Coca-Cola are out in aisle 6, we have a mixed-up books item in aisle 7, we have an incorrect price in aisle 10,” says Bogolea, offering what it might share.

Before Tally is ready to work, a retail employee must first guide it through the store to help it build a map of where it can go. Or a store could send its floor plan to Simbe Robotics, which will then program a specific robot with a map of the space. Tally also includes a range of sensors so that it won’t crash into shelves or customers. It can see items on shelves up to 8 feet high.

So far Tally has only been rolled out in limited situations. Its creator, Simbe Robotics, says it can’t discuss the current in-store trials due to confidentiality agreements, but is ready for additional rollouts with other retailers.

Stores that stock goods on shelves with easily-viewed barcodes and prices are the best fit for Tally. Clothing retailers aren’t great fits because of this. Simbe Robotics says that Tally can work in the frozen goods section of a grocery provided there isn’t heavy condensation on the freezer doors, or a strong glare from overhead lights.

Tally is being sold as a service, and Simbe Robotics wouldn’t reveal exact pricing. Bogolea said the cost of manufacturing Tally is in the range of making an enterprise laptop.

Simbe Robotics believes the data it gathers from shelves would be of interest to more than just store managers. It’s interested in eventually selling the information — which it compares to a real-time Google Maps street view of an aisle — to brand managers. They could easily see how products are doing in a given shelf space, or how they are being presented in comparison to competitors.

Simbe Robotics considered focusing on health care and hospitality before deciding that brick-and-mortar retail was the largest untapped market. They’re targeting mundane tasks, and wants humans to be freed up for more interesting work.

The company is backed by venture capital firms Lemnos Labs and SOSV , though the amount of funding has not been publicly disclosed.