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‘It’s a little scary.’ Walmart rolls out shelf-scanning robots in 50 stores

Customers at a Walmart in Milpitas, Calif., check out a robot that scans shelves for out-of-stock or mislabeled products in a KTVU report. Walmart is testing the robots at 50 stores, including three in the Bay Area of California.
Customers at a Walmart in Milpitas, Calif., check out a robot that scans shelves for out-of-stock or mislabeled products in a KTVU report. Walmart is testing the robots at 50 stores, including three in the Bay Area of California. KTVU

They might not be the killer machines from the future in the “Terminator” films, but shelf-scanning robots deployed at 50 Walmart stores across the nation are still an unsettling sight for some consumers.

“Well, it’s a little scary because I feel it’s taking somebody’s job,” shopper Deborah Espinoza told KTVU at a Walmart testing the robots in Milpitas, Calif. “But if it isn’t taking somebody’s job, if it’s gonna do benefits for Walmart, then it would be good.”

Walmart executives, however, insist the robots will not entirely replace human workers at the retail giant’s stores.

“It’s looking at tasks that are repeatable, predictable,” Tiffany Wilson, a Walmart spokeswoman, told The Mercury News. “This way, our associates can spend their time focusing on customers and selling merchandise. While the job may change, and the type of work being done may change, robots are not going to replace human contact and human touch.”

The 6-foot-tall robots, designed by San Francisco-based Bossa Nova Robotics, zip down store aisles scanning shelves on both sides using lights, cameras and radar, reported KPIX. The robots clear one aisle every 90 seconds or so, checking for out-of-stock, mispriced, mislabled and misplaced products, instantly uploading the information so workers can keep shelves up to date.

Bossa Nova's robots’ mission is to make large scale stores run efficiently by automating the collection and analysis of on-shelf inventory data.

Martin Hitch, chief business officer at Bossa Nova Robotics, told the station the robots also remember blocked or inaccessible aisles to scan later.

“That’s the most rewarding thing, when it successfully navigates a really complex and dynamic space and just gets on with the job,” Hitch told KPIX. “It’s unobtrusive, it just carries on.”

Walmart has rolled out the robots at 50 stores across the United States, including the one in Milpitas and two in San Jose, reported KGO. The company says the robots also are being deployed at some Walmarts in Arkansas.

Bossa Nova Robotics, which is a fledgling San Francisco tech firm that has raised about $45 million in venture financing, told the station it is working with three other retailers to test its shelf-scanning robots, but declined to disclose the other participants in the pilot program. The robots took six years to develop.



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