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Bossa Nova bots coming to a Wal-Mart near you, but please ignore them

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Bossa Nova
A Bossa Nova robot scans the shelves at a Walmart.

Martin Hitch would kindly like you to ignore his robots.

The next time you see a Bossa Nova robot moving slowly up and down the aisles of your favorite store, please, walk on by.

“The last thing we want is for people to stop and talk to it,” Hitch, the company’s chief business officer, said, noting that the Bossa Nova bots aren’t equipped with technology that would allow them to talk. “We have a job to do, and we don’t want to be interrupted on the job.”

Bossa Nova, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff robotics company, is serious about the job it designed its robots to do, and retailers are becoming serious about Bossa Nova.

Wal-Mart announced this month it would roll out Bossa Nova robots in 50 stores, including a few in the Pittsburgh area. With the retail behemoth backing Bossa Nova, nearly every major retailer in the country has reached out, Hitch said.

Bossa Nova announced last week it raised $17.5 million in a recent round of funding. That money will allow Bossa Nova to grow. Hitch expects to double the 35-strong workforce in Pittsburgh.

Bossa Nova will run its operations center out of Pittsburgh. The company just tripled the amount of space it leases in the Cigar Factory in the Strip District. Bossa Nova has about 35 people in an office in California.

Bossa Nova’s robots move slowly — about 8 inches a second, less than half a mile per hour — down store aisles, scanning the shelves. The robots capture 2D and 3D images of the shelves and use the photos to extract data, including the amount of a product on the shelves, how the products are positioned and prices. The information flows to retailers, who use it to make sure the products customers want are where they should be, Hitch said.

Unlike other retail robots that operate in back storerooms or when stores are closed or less crowded, Bossa Nova’s fleet is designed to work when stores are at their busiest, scanning aisles alongside customers, Hitch said.

Bossa Nova has been working with Wal-Mart for three years and has four other retail customers that aren’t ready to go public, Hitch said. Companies fret about the public perception of putting robots in stores with customers. Hitch said there is nothing to worry about. Bossa Nova robots have traveled more than 1,000 kilometers autonomously and have never had a collision.

“We’re not going quickly. We’re not going to surprise people. We’re not going to sneak up behind them,” Hitch said. “We’re actually pretty boring.”

Boring, in part, because the job the robots are designed to do is boring. Hitch said the robots are taking on a task that nobody wants to do.

“It’s dull. It’s repetitive. It’s mind-numbing throughout the day,” Martin said of manually scanning shelves. “In every retailer that we work with, it’s unanimous that nobody likes that job.”

John Crecelius, Wal-Mart’s vice president of central operations, said scanning is also time consuming. He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that using Bossa Nova robots makes things better for employees and customers.

Hitch said the robots don’t take jobs, but rather they create jobs. The troves of data captured by the robots are creating more tasks — tasks that benefit the store and customers.

And as for ignoring the robots, Pittsburghers seem pretty good at that. Hitch said there’s been a Bossa Nova robot inside a Pittsburgh-area Wal-Mart store for two and a half years. He wouldn’t say which one, but in that time, to his knowledge, the robot has never wound up on social media.

Hitch figured people around Pittsburgh, with self-driving Ubers roaming the streets and robots of all shapes and sizes coming out of CMU, the University of Pittsburgh and their spinoff companies, are more used to them than others.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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