A walk around town can provide occasional interesting interactions with others along the way — especially if you’re a robot.
Dax, the name given to an interactive robot created by Philomath-based Nova Dynamics, has seen just about everything, including walking around with a trash bag on his head.
“We’ve had people run out and bag the robot,” Nova Dynamics founder Joseph Sullivan said. “They didn’t realize that it didn’t faze him — the robot kept on going — but he had a trash bag on his head now.
“Last week, a woman ran out and laid down in front of him in the road and the robot just kinda stopped and looked at her for a few minutes and then went around her,” he added. “But she was actually in the road in broad daylight lying down in front of the robot.”
Those are just a few examples of some of the comical and unusual situations that have surfaced during Dax’s test runs. Now about five years into the project, Nova Dynamics plans to scale up production as the company gets ready to have up to 30 robots in local operation by next year.
“We’ve had an alpha delivery program that ran for, I think, three months and we’re hoping to get a beta program running in January 2020,” the company’s Kevin Sullivan said. “We’ve got five robots ... and we’re hoping to start testing with that and use that to determine whether we can build another 25 and really put a large-scale program into effect.”
Dax has been tested up to this point primarily as a product delivery robot. Joseph Sullivan said it’s been important to avoid building Dax in a sort of vacuum, but to get him out in the real world.
“I think probably the biggest benefit for us has been being able to test the robot and actually getting out there in the wild and delivering food and doing things that interact with people,” Joseph Sullivan said.
Kevin Sullivan said the public has provided almost all positive feedback on Dax with very little on the negative side.
“The negative feedback we got was all about what happened to the burrito?” Kevin Sullivan said. “What was in that tray when we delivered it, it wasn’t pretty. So we had to suspend delivery for a little while until we could get that figured out.”
Kevin Sullivan said the hope is for the Dax deliveries to launch in January along with an app that customers would use to place orders and pay. A relationship with La Rockita will continue — he and restaurant owner Elsa Attire were volunteer firefighters together years ago — and others would join in after the kinks are worked out.
“We’ve talked to quite a few (businesses) and they’re all interested in being part of the program,” Kevin Sullivan said. “If it turns out that we’re making burrito salad again, we don’t want to do that with multiple people at the same time. So we’ll probably start with La Rockita and then we’ll expand from there.”
The Sullivans appreciate the response by the city and citizens on the robot’s testing phases, which began close to two years ago. And children love Dax.
“They come up and they push and they pull and push the button — the robot has only one button and if you push that one button, he stops,” Joseph Sullivan said. “It seems like the safest way to imagine it — if there is a button, it should mean stop. So kids will push the button, he’ll stop and then a technician will re-enable the robot remotely because they can see nothing is going on, it’s just a kid.”
A few weeks ago, Dax ran into a problem when he hit a large bump in the sidewalk.
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“He kinda got whiplash and broke his neck,” Joseph Sullivan said. “Luckily for us, we already knew the neck was a weak point and we had already done work to design it. Now we’ve got the new neck out here getting ready to be installed.”
Dax has struggled with steep grades in the past and engineers have made adjustments to make sure the robot won’t tip over going up and down hills. The sidewalk problems that Dax has dealt with in Philomath could lead to another line of work.
“There’s actually a service that we think we can provide to cities to help them identify sidewalk problems for ADA compliance,” Joseph Sullivan said. “We were talking with someone just last week ... about possibly going to their city and mapping out sidewalks.”
In other words, Dax’s capabilities could go well beyond making product deliveries.
“We built a robot to be just a general purpose urban robot,” Joseph Sullivan said. “I don’t care if it’s delivering groceries or helping you with your gardening. It’s just an outdoor-indoor robot. Delivery was kind of the first obvious market everyone thinks of, but we didn’t design him to do delivery, we designed him to be helpful.”
Dax has become somewhat of a local celebrity with appearances at various local events, including just recently as a participant in the Lilly’s Lope for Hope 5-kilometer run. He also visits schools in the region, including this past Friday morning at Clemens Primary School when he interacted with kindergartners and first graders.
Joseph Sullivan stresses the importance of positive human-robot interactions.
“What we’re doing within Philomath is we’re trying to see if there is a way where robots can work with humans in a way that humans like — it’s fun, it’s not intrusive, it’s not annoying and our belief is if we can make it work in Philomath, it’ll work anywhere,” Joseph Sullivan said.
If that occurs, Nova Dynamics could be home free.
“At that point, it’s kinda like you plant your garden and add water,” Joseph Sullivan said. “If we have a business model that works in Philomath, it’s relatively easy to get investment money to just scale it. I think a lot of businesses try to scale before they have a good model and that’s why you see so many annoying things coming out of Silicon Valley.”
Nova Dynamics ventured into this type of work pretty much all alone back in 2015, Joseph Sullivan said, and now at least a half-dozen companies are now trying to perfect this type of robot technology.
“The thing is, it’s hard to say it’s competition because none of them have any appreciable amount of market share,” Joseph Sullivan said. “If the industry were well defined, we wouldn’t be trying to define it in Philomath, we would be just trying to manufacture for a particular need.”
Many of those “competitors” are small start-ups or university programs with no real expertise on the business world.
“From my point of view, I’ve gone into this having started multiple successful businesses and being pretty confident with my skills in the business world and it’s still taken me five years and millions of dollars,.” Joseph Sullivan said. “This is a very hard thing to do and that makes me happy because I think the harder it is, the more likely that we’re going to be able to plow through and stay the course where people who aren’t really in it to do it right are going to fall off.”