What it's like to head up a robotics startup at CES 2022

Ottonomy CEO and co-founder Ritukar Vijay is working a small booth at CES 2022 for the final day of the trade show, madly interviewing with Fierce Electronics via a smartphone video link and a describing the company’s delivery Ottobots for the umpteenth time.

The company of 25 engineers and other staff is split between the U.S. and India, which allows the team to work 24/7, and then some, especially during trade shows.  When the U.S. team is asleep, the India team is busy. “The work is going 24/7,” he says. “The India team and the U.S. team are on fire. Time is the only thing that nobody can give us. We can get money from angels, but nobody can give us time.”

CES 2022 was held both in-person and virtually, but some of the largest companies pulled out their physical presence due to the Omicron surge. Vijay is glad Ottonomy showed up in person in Vegas, along with many other smaller companies.

“It has been amazing at CES,” he says. “This year is more focused on the business. We’ve had a great of feedback from a lot of people. While it was smaller, we still got good leads. We’re taking it forward to 2022.”

Ottonomy is barely more than a year old, with nearly 20 delivery robots in its inventory so far, but some very promising customers. It is competing with at least five other established delivery robot outfits, but threads the needle on the market it will serve by focusing on airport and curbside delivery for now.  No sidewalks and roadways, since they are usually under complicated government regulations that vary from city to city.  Vijay claims Ottonomy is the only delivery robot company that works both indoors and outdoors. 

So far, the company robots are delivering food and other items to passengers and workers at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. It also has a deal with Presto Delivery for curbside delivery, taking food orders to customers, which requires moving from indoors to outdoors. The curbside robot prevents people from having to line up for in-car order and pickup. Vijay says there is a retail deal underway with Walmart but he is not allowed to talk about the specific  use case being explored.

Investors including Connetic Ventures have supported the startup to the tune of $1.2 million, with angels from “all over”-- the U.S., Middle East, Singapore and India.

Vijay says the secret of of Ottobots is they are autonomous from the get-go, while companies like Starship Technologies started with a tele-operations model then adding gradual introductions of autonomy.  Ottonomy does have a manned network operations center behind its delivery robots at the Cincinnati Airport if anything goes wrong, but the NOC is not required for autonomous functions.

During a press conference at CES 2022, Vijay described the worst scenario a delivery robot can encounter: a small child having a temper tantrum on the floor in the path of the robot.  If such a scenario were to crop up, the robot would stop and start choosing another trajectory. “If somebody keeps messing it up, we can call for help and network operations control gets an alert and somebody gets onto the system,” he explains.

The robots first map an area to be served and know what areas are traversable.  There are ‘no-go’ zones such as the travelators and escalators in the airport. Curbside deliveries rely on high-definition mapping and GPS.

The four-wheel delivery robots are rugged and pimped up with seven cameras, two lidars and ultrasonics for 360-degree perception.  A 3D lidar sits on top, while a 2D lidar is underneath. Some of the cameras act as cliff sensors to keep the robot from falling downstairs. Ottobots can move at 10 mph, but are usually moving at 3 mph to 5 mph when around people.

Ottonomy has worked within the Nvidia inception program and deploys edge hardware that includes two Nvidia boards running Xavier processors inside each robot.  Working with Nvidia has provided an added plus. “Nvidia is helping navigate the silicon shortage which has been so tough,” Vijay says.  Almost all the robot’s functions are at the edge, with the cloud only used for some basics such as the point of a delivery order pickup and dropoff.

The company offers its robots under a service plan to customers. “Customers don’t want to buy something and in three years it becomes obsolete,” he says. The service is scalable but can run from $2,500 to $4,000 a month. Given the high cost of delivery with recent increases in wages, he believes customers could save at least 50% on labor for delivery back when wages were around $9 an hour, a figure which has gone up to as much as $16 an hour.

Vijay got interested in robotics after earning a computer science degree from University of Rajasthan in India in 2007. One of his first jobs was working on autonomous driving software for unmanned battle tanks from 2009 to 2013 for a contractor to the government of India. “That’s when  lidar cost $80,000 apiece,” he recalls.

After that, he was employed briefly by Aptiv, working for BMW on urban autopilot technology as well as warehouse automation.  The idea for Ottonomy sprung up during the pandemic with the rise in home delivery and his realizing  it would take years for autonomous cars to clear regulatory approvals to get off the ground. There was no ureka moment, just a recognition that “there had to be a bridge to solving the problems of today and cars were not solving it,” he says.

His 4-year-old son Abeer’s generation comprises the future pipeline of customers of Ottobots. “They understand it,” he says. “To test it out, I can put my son in front of the robot.”

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