One of the many questions facing delivery robot startups as they come to market is how much autonomy to give the robots. Should they go full autonomous driving, even though that is more technically complex and there is still a patchwork of regulation that needs to be dealt with? Or should they go with less autonomy and use humans to help guide or even drive their robots to sidestep some of the complications that come with self-driving vehicles.
For robot delivery startups wrestling with these questions, Imperium Drive says it’s here to help. Based in Europe (the company is scattered across different countries because of the pandemic) and part of the TechStars Smart Mobility cohort, Imperium Drive makes a teleoperation system for autonomous vehicles, including the small rover robots favored by the likes of Starship, Kiwibot, Postmates and others.
Imperium does the whole teleoperation stack, from the software onboard the robot to the human on the other end who helps the robot navigate. Imperium lets robot companies choose how much teleoperation they want, depending on their robot’s level of autonomy. Imperium can have a human simply monitor the robot remotely in case it gets stuck or runs into trouble, or the company can plot points on a map for the robot to autonomously follow. At the far end of the spectrum, Imperium can have a human actually drive the delivery robot remotely, like a videogame.
Imperium Drive Co-Founder and CEO, Koosha Kaveh, told me by phone this week that his company’s secret sauce is its ability to operate even when network connections provide only low bandwidth. As the robot runs around town, the strength of its cellular connection will vary, sometimes offering very small pipes for data to get through.
“We’ve developed our own AI predictive engine that predicts changes of network parameters,” said Kaveh, “And we change automatically our streaming engine based on availability.”
A easy way to think about Imperium’s bandwidth technology is Netflix. The movie streaming service will detect how much bandwidth you have (e.g., a cellular connection versus wired Ethernet) and serve a movie in a resolution fit for that situation. Imperium does the same thing, just with data from the robot.
Delivery robots are actually streaming a lot of data back to their headquarters. There’s video from the robot’s on-board cameras as well as lidar and radar information. Imperium adapts what is streamed based on the amount of bandwidth. For example, if there’s very little bandwidth, Imperium can send just wireframes of the robots surroundings. Kaveh said that it can stream the relevant information a teleoperator needs at under 1MB of data.
The idea of teleoperating robots brings up the question of scale. It’s easy to understand self-driving robots scaling up to meet demand because that’s the whole point — there is no human labor to pay. Once you have the robots, they can just run around the clock with no additional cost. What happens to the economics when you have a human handling a robot?
Kaveh says Imperium has a network of inexpensive labor in Eastern Europe that it can tap into to teleoperate robots. And Imperium isn’t alone in using humans to guide robots. Kiwibot has a team of people in Colombia that plots the courses for its robots (not full-on driving). And Tortoise skipped the idea of self-driving altogether for its robots, believing it can create a Mechanical Turk style army of human gig-work teleoperators.
The fact that Imperium Drive exists is at least some indication that the delivery robot space is maturing. As we outlined in our Delivery Robot Market Report, there are many companies around the world deploying delivery robots on city streets. Imperium Drive is part of a typical business cycle for new market categories like delivery bots. It’s not creating the robots themselves, but adding a layer to make those robots run more efficiently. As robots gain traction, we’ll see more third-party add-ons like this meant to improve robot delivery operations.