By Mike Freeman • The San Diego Union-Tribune


Ten years ago computational neuroscientist Dr. Eugene Izhikevich walked away from a successful career in academia to co-found Brain Corp. with the ambitious goal of building artificial brains for robots.

These days when the Russian-born Izhikevich lands late at San Diego International Airport, he sometimes sees the fruits of that decision rolling along the airport halls.

The squat, half-ton robot powered by Brain Corp.’s technology isn’t sexy. It scrubs floors at a leisurely pace.

But under the hood, it does things that many robots can’t — navigate safely in unpredictable, public places with no driver.

“Anything with wheels can be turned into a fully autonomous, self-driving robot using the BrainOS operating system, provided that the speeds are slow and stopping is never a safety concern, which means we are staying away from driving on public roads,” said Izhikevich, Brain Corp.’s chief executive.

Self-driving cars get a lot of hype. But the technology and infrastructure needed for widespread adoption of autonomous cars is likely years away. The market is not a priority for Brain Corp. for now.

But a few under-the-radar industries are ripe to automate with self-driving robots, including large venue floor cleaning, retail restocking and health care equipment delivery.

Industrial/commercial robots have been around for years to help build cars or fetch merchandise at warehouses. But these machines are not well-suited to operate around people. They’re often caged off from workers. The robots find their way by following wires in the floor on pre-programmed routes.

In the last five years, a new type of robot has emerged in commercial markets. These robots aren’t tethered to specific routes. They can operate safely alongside people.

“If the robot encounters something and it doesn’t know what to do, it can stop and wait for people to walk away or the situation to clear up,” said Izhikevich.

Brain Corp. is a leader in this space. It doesn’t build robots itself. It partners with firms that make manually operated machines and helps them convert the equipment into self-driving robots.

Its proprietary BrainOS operating system integrates off-the-shelf cameras and sensors with a cloud-connected software stack to provide a “brain” that enables robots to understand their surroundings.

Though small compared with the overall robotics market today, the market for these autonomous mobile robots is forecast to grow fast — notching a compound annual growth rate topping 50% over the next decade, according to ABI Research, a technology market research firm.

In April, Walmart ordered 1,860 self-driving cleaners for its stores powered by the BrainOS operating system.

This summer, Brain Corp. teamed up with Softbank Robotics to deploy autonomous Whiz vacuum cleaners, which are the size of an office trash can. Whiz robots target smaller retail and workplace spaces, with the initial roll out in Japan.

Brain Corp. also provides its operating system to machines operating in Mall of America, Mitsubishi Property Group and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, among others.

“Running an auto scrubber is a really mundane task,” said John Beach, senior housekeeping manager at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. “Believe me you can fall asleep if you’re not careful. We wanted to reallocate our team to more high value tasks.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing with the robotic scrubbers. The mall has glass railings on some upper floors. At first, sensors picked up the scrubber’s reflection in the glass and stopped, thinking it was an obstacle.

But that problem has been fixed, said Beach.

The mall is planning to buy more autonomous machines next year. While they usually run on the overnight shift, Beach will bring them out occasionally during regular mall hours when weather is bad to clean snow and salt near entrances.

“The cool thing is parents and children, they love looking at these machines,” he said. “The machine looks like a normal scrubber. It has a steering wheel. It doesn’t look like a robot. It is just driving itself with nobody on it. People get a kick out of that.”