How Robots on Campus Can Save Money and Lives

Robots are quickly becoming an extension of smart buildings and smart public safety departments. Here are the latest robosecurity trends.

How Robots on Campus Can Save Money and Lives

Robots can be designed to operate in many different environments, including offices, campuses, laboratories, hospitals, datacenters, museums and more. Photo: Cobalt

For the past 100 years, the capability of an individual security officer has remained relatively unchanged. Meanwhile, technology continues to improve at a blistering pace, getting better and cheaper with each passing year. Robots are a quintessential technology product.

A robot’s worst day on the job is its first day — it improves with every new piece of data, each additional robot deployed, every over-the-air software update and every additional remote human operator that brings their own unique wisdom to the table.

Robots can deal with the dull, dirty and dangerous parts of your security programs while your core people focus on solving higher-order problems.

Robots have captured the imagination of security directors for decades — dating all the way back to the very first mobile robots in the mid-1960s.

The vision was simple: superhuman observation and reporting, the ability to respond in real-time, and vastly cheaper and more consistent than human security officers. Today that vision is a reality; security robots are being widely deployed at an ever-increasing rate.

Why Now for Robots?

The transition from 1960s-era robots to today wasn’t instantaneous, but something significant happened in the past five-10 years: All of the necessary component technologies to build a security robot became commonplace and economical.

  • Wireless technologies such as WiFi, cellular and Bluetooth became ubiquitous. Forthcoming advances in 5G and satellite-based Internet will unlock even more capabilities.
  • Video teleconferencing became common-place, and then critical as the world dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. Work-from-home and social distancing trends are redefining the workplace — and robots are a natural part of that equation.
  • Mobility platforms and electric vehicles received heavy R&D investments, resulting in improvements to electric motors and batteries technologies.
  • Sensors experienced profound advances. Technology companies invested billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle technologies, including safety-critical sensors such as depth cameras and light detection and ranging (LIDAR). Sensors that once cost $20,000+ can now be purchased for as little as $200. Other sensors, such as cameras and environmental sensors continue to improve too.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning made massive leaps in capability with advances in deep learning and convolutional neural network algorithms. Being able to detect, recognize and identify people and anomalies with high confidence was a game-changer for security robots.
  • The price tags for robot arms have dropped from $100,000+ to less than $15,000. Companies are still in the early days of adding manipulation to security robots. Expect this trend to accelerate.

Given all of the above, it’s shocking how much mysticism people ascribe to the idea of a robot. It should not be surprising that we can scale up a Roomba vacuum cleaner, wirelessly connect it to the Internet, add hard drives for data storage, add a screen for video conferencing, and add sensors with a bit of AI and machine learning to detect basic anomalies, navigate through a building and avoid falling into fountains.

It’s not rocket science; it’s good old-fashioned engineering. That’s just the technology; ultimately it boils down to workflows, use cases and return on investment (ROI).

How Campuses Can Use Robots

Autonomous Data Machines (ADMs)

Robots are 30%-60% less expensive than security officers. Photo: Cobalt

There are a host of situations where an autonomously patrolling robot can provide value by acting as a “Roomba with a camera.” For example, a patrolling robot can serve as a deterrent, and the video and environmental data can be used for investigative purposes after an incident.

This capability is basic table stakes for a security robot. Patrols can be updated or modified on the fly, and data can be streamed back to a remote command center for real-time viewing.

This is supported by virtually all security robot providers.

Anomaly Detection and Human Augmentation

The real power of a security robot comes from anomaly detection and human augmentation. Imagine having your most capable security officer spread across a dozen locations all at once, allowing them to focus their attention at precisely the right time and place to affect a response.

For example, some robots use AI and machine learning to detect anomalies — anything from unidentified people, motion, unusual sounds, open doors, leaks, spills, hazardous gases, overflowing trashcans, unattended devices, unlocked computers, suspicious packages, dirty whiteboards, medical emergencies, etc.

When one of these anomalies is detected, the robot determines whether to notify a remote person to respond. That person could be a security officer, onsite or offsite monitoring center operator, intelligence analyst, customer service rep, hostage negotiator, medical expert, facilities manager, safety director, etc.

You get unwavering attention, perfect recall, superhuman sensing and the collective wisdom of an entire team of people in every location where the robots are present. That flexibility unlocks a vast array of applications.

Examples of Tasks Robots Can Perform

If you delve into the applications for human security officers, you’ll get dozens of answers about the tasks they perform. It usually boils down to some form of “observe and report” with a few added tasks sprinkled in.

Those tasks are written into a set of “post orders” — instructions about how to react when certain scenarios are encountered — and then officers are trained to execute those tasks to the best of their ability.

Robots are very similar. The robot starts out with a default set of post orders. Organizations adapt those post orders by doing a site assessment and walkthrough or on-the-fly at any time. The robot will faithfully execute those post orders like a computer program — 24/7, without complaint and without fail. Let’s delve into a few use case examples.

Observation and Reporting

Modern sensor technology has far surpassed human sensing. Mount those sensors on a mobile robot, have robots share data with one another, and you’ve created one of the most effective observation and collections platforms imaginable. You can obtain verifiable, unambiguous data about what occurred at any given time without resorting to manual data entry or logging.

You can look back at data over years to uncover trends and provide various forms of business intelligence. For instance, some robots can patrol a multi-building site spanning more than 1.2 million square feet. Last year, the robots one location performed 14,247 door checks and found that critical doors were left ajar more than 600 times.

Intelligence analysts regularly review the data to provide actionable analysis in daily and weekly reports. In reviewing the data, they found that many of those failed door checks were located in one building and involved three specific sets of doors.

Based on that analysis, the organization installed new door closure mechanisms and focused additional attention on that building during their annual Security Week activities. Compliance massively improved during the following months.

That is just one of thousands of examples of observation and reporting use cases.

Emergency Response

In the event of an emergency, a robot can assist in a number of ways. Consider some examples:

  • Robbery: At a retail jewelry store, there was a smash and grab incident. Onsite security personnel were not authorized to intervene due to policy. A robot was sent in to get situational awareness and potentially intervene. It turned out that the perpetrator was no longer onsite, so a remote human operator was able to video chat through the robot with nearby tenants — requesting they shelter in place and notifying them that police were on their way.
  • Carbon monoxide: A robot detected an elevated level of carbon monoxide (CO) in a biopharma laboratory. While the command center was triaging the issue, another remote operator was able to safely evacuate the building without putting additional personnel in harm’s way.
  • Slip and fall: A robot detected a person laying on the floor at 2 a.m. in a relatively empty commercial office building. The remote operator came on and immediately inquired if the person needed medical assistance. Thankfully, the individual was unharmed; they indicated that they’d tripped, though no trip hazards were identified nearby.

The combination of ground-truth data and the flexibility of the remote human being is profound. Robots have responded to breaking and entering incidents, fire alarms, floods and all manner of emergencies.

Nevertheless, there are limitations. Robots cannot handle all emergency scenarios, but they can provide support in a number of meaningful ways — often just getting awareness of an incident that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed.

Cobalt has robots deployed at Willis Tower (colloquially, the Sears Tower) in Chicago. While performing security functions, the robot and remote personnel also provide concierge and customer service support; engaging with guests, providing directions, displaying promotions, etc.

The robot’s ability to ride up and down the elevators means that it can adapt to traffic patterns in the building to ensure maximum utility at any given time. This is just one example of many where the robot fulfills multiple functions.

Robot’s Safety, Regulation Compliance Applications

Particularly relevant in laboratory, warehouse and manufacturing settings, robots automatically check for compliance with various OSHA rules. These include trip hazards, personal protective equipment such as safety glasses and hardhats, fire extinguisher checks, visual inspections of eyewash stations, etc.

The data provided by the robot gives safety directors a measurable baseline to gauge compliance, understand the effectiveness of new safety initiatives and demonstrate a commitment to a safe work environment.

Cybersecurity and IT

Intellectual property is one of the most critical assets for any organization. They are required to adhere to cybersecurity regulations such as ISO-27001, SOC2 and HIPAA.

These cyber regulations have a physical component: Clean desk and screen policies, no unattended devices and cleaned whiteboards. Part of the default post orders for a robot deployed in this scenario is to detect and document lapses.

Robots can also help with wireless signal intelligence: WiFi and cellular signal strength heatmaps, locations of rogue wireless access points, and the presence and identity of nearby electronic devices through techniques such as MAC address fingerprinting.

Facilities Management

Robots automatically look for leaks and spills, build maps of environmental data (temperature, humidity, hazardous gases), check for overflowing trashcans and file facilities support tickets.

At one site, robots’ temperature maps were used to automatically adjust the building temperature profile to make occupants feel more comfortable. At another site, a robot preemptively detected and reported a water leak, saving the organization $300,000 in estimated damages.

Robots Are Less Expensive Than Officers

In short: robots are a tool — similar to cameras, access control and security officers. The ROI is simple: robots are 30%-60% cheaper than an officer. To be clear, robots will not replace all officers. The robots of today are not going to perform CPR, serve as armed executive protection officers, etc.

Rather, robot deployments fall into roughly three categories:

  1. New coverage: Many locations would benefit from a full-time presence in their space, but he $20-$30/hour fully loaded cost of an officer was never economical. Robots offer a compelling new option, and the additional use cases further add to the overall ROI.
  2. Officer enhancement: Robots can help reduce overall staffing levels while maintaining or extending coverage. Sometimes this means keeping officers located in critical areas and letting robots cover everywhere else. Sometimes the robots provide coverage during mandatory break and meal periods. Sometimes human beings, no matter how well-intentioned, are the biggest threat; in which case robots are placed in the critical locations and officers patrol the perimeter.
  3. Direct guard replacement: It happens. Previously, manned guards were the only alternative to simple, stationary cameras. In some instances, a guard is overkill given new robot capabilities.

Make Them Part of Your Campus Security Ecosystem

An additional benefit of robot security solutions is the mobility itself. Unlike most security technology buildouts, security robots can be relocated and repurposed on demand as businesses adapt and change.

This flexibility saves organizations huge sums of time, and was instrumental in recent COVID-19 crisis response. Robots are not a silver bullet; they are one part of an overall security ecosystem.

Dr. Travis Deyle is Founder and CEO of Cobalt Robotics, serving safety and security, facilities management and HR applications. This article originally was published in CS sister publication, Security Sales and Integration, and has been edited.

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