4 Show Floor Takeaways from CES 2019: Robots and Drones, Oh My!

Source: Keith Shaw

January 15, 2019      

We’ve had some time to recuperate from the madness of CES, in which more than 150,000 attendees and thousands of exhibitors displayed their latest gadgets, gizmos and yes, even robots, on the CES show floor.

Last week’s reporter’s notebook focused on the collection of startups around the Eureka Park area of CES, but several of the same trends were evident on the main South Hall 2 area of the Las Vegas Convention Center, where drones, robotics, AR/VR, and gaming took center stage.

While most of our time was spent at CES hosting the Service Robots Arrive in Daily Life event, we did have some time during the week to visit the show floor and record observations. Here’s what we saw on the show floor, as well as some of our own individual meetings:

1. Underwater drones make a big splash

On the main floor, there was no busier aerial drone booth than the DJI booth, but that is expected given the company’s dominance in the space. But once you got past that, you noticed a lot more drone companies getting their feet wet – literally.

At Eureka Park we saw Notilo Plus, but on the main floor we saw demonstrations by Geneinno and its Trident underwater scooter, as well as China’s Waydoo and its $8,000 Flyer, a personal electric hydrofoil.

We also saw underwater robots from Sublue, RoboSea, Navatics, Chasing Innovation (the GLADIUS Mini) and QYSEA’s Fifish.

GLADIUS Mini underwater drone show floor

A CES attendee observes the GLADIUS Mini underwater drone. Source: Chasing Innovation

There’s still a mix of audiences for these devices, between consumer recreation (scuba divers using a propeller-driven device to ‘swim’), film/video production, and research. We get a feeling that devices that look more like robotic fish or sharks will be used to integrate with real fish and sharks, rather than used with scuba divers. It should be interesting to see how many of these companies aim their focus on the commercial markets rather than strict consumer plays.

2. On-demand delivery by drones or robots has arrived

We had a great conversation with Yariv Bash, the CEO and co-founder at Flytrex, who was giving interviews with media members about the latest news on drone delivery. During the show, the company announced raising $7.5 million to expand its services, including expanding its drone delivery services in Iceland and North Dakota.

In addition, the company is preparing for a launch in North Carolina as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft (UAS) Integration Pilot Program.

Bash said a lot of the focus on drone deliveries in the future will be around suburban areas, rather than urban environments, which can utilize driver delivery services and even last-mile ground robots. For suburbs, the company is focusing on piloting programs with shopping centers and mall food courts, which could provide food delivery services to customers within a 3-mile radius (Bash said his drones can fly six miles round trip from a centralized mall location).

What struck us about this approach is that companies/restaurants that want to provide delivery can do so through this service, as opposed to trying to fly drones themselves or investing in last-mile delivery robots. By offering services to many different restaurants, it’s likely that this could take off (pardon the pun).

In addition, Bash said it’s likely that drone delivery companies will likely set up franchising opportunities for companies interested in providing the drone delivery services, rather than set up thousands of individual delivery centers. It’s certainly a space to keep a watch on.

Since launching in 2017, Flytrex’s patented “InAir” wire-drop system employs a tethered cord that gently lowers a package to the ground after a customer confirms that they’re in position nearby. Bash said this method helps reduce noise pollution and increases safety, as drones don’t have to land on a customer’s property.

Robby Technologies Snackbot PepsiCo show floor CES 2019 article

Snackbot makes on-demand delivery for hungry college students. Source: Robby Technologies

On the robot side of things, it was cool to see the Robby Technologies last-mile delivery robot at the show. In this case, it was the “Snackbot”, a collaborative partnership between Robby and PepsiCo, which is bringing a fleet of Hello Goodness snackbots to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

Instead of grabbing snacks from a vending machine or ordering out for a pizza, the goal with the snackbots is to provide a healthier snacking alternative through the Hello Goodness line, PepsiCo said in announcing the partnership. Choices include Smartfood Delight, Baked Lay’s, SunChips, Pure Leaf Iced Tea, bubbly, LIFEWTR and Starbucks Cold Brew. PepsiCo said the snackbot is part of an effort to bring 50,000 touchpoints by the end of this year with “curated convenience into new formats, locations, and experiences.”

Snackbot CES 2019 show floor

The Snackbot by Robby Technologies is offering college students healthier snack options. Source: Keith Shaw

Students at the university can order food and drinks between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. through the snackbot app, with delivery to more than 50 designated areas across the 175-acre campus. Robby said the robots can drive more than 20 miles on a single charge, and include cameras and headlights to let them see and navigate in darkness or rain. All-wheel drive features let the robots handle curbs and steep hills.

Like delivery robots from Starship and others, the last-mile delivery space is taking off, but more importantly contributes to the on-demand ordering culture. Whether the delivery is provided by a human, drone, or robot largely doesn’t matter in the end to the customer, but it’s interesting to watch this market to see what will shake out. A lot depends on the customer’s location and their proximity to urban, suburban, or rural distribution centers. At the moment, there’s no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all solution.

3. Personal or home robots take small steps

There were certainly a lot of cute and fuzzy robots on display on the show floor, but that’s always been the case at CES for several years. What we were looking for were robots that could actually do stuff for you in the home, and there were a few companies aiming to do that.

For example, Misty Robotics continues to work on bringing its Misty II robot to the market. After a slight delay to fix a microphone heating issue, the company is on track to deliver the robot to its crowdfunded customers between April and July this year.

Misty II is still aimed at the software developer / enthusiast market, with the goal of having developers create application use cases for the robot. This is similar to the approach Apple and others took with early personal computers – get them into the hands of developers and have them figure out one or several “killer apps”.

UBTECH also made a big impact at the event – it gave several demonstrations of its newest Walker prototype, a humanoid robot that could walk around a room and grasp objects for home users. In its demonstration on the show floor, Walker could open a refrigerator, grab a soda, open doors and hand a human an umbrella. While the walking humanoid robot has been seen for many years, Ubtech believes it can get the costs down enough to make it an attractive option for home users.

A third company I met with in the personal robotics space was Temi, which was having a fun time on the show floor having its robot follow people around (the folks at ForwardX were doing the same thing with their luggage robots). In Temi’s case, the robot not only provides users with a fun music soundtrack option, but video connectivity allows for some interesting robot telepresence applications. The company recently scored some funding, so it will be interesting to watch where the company goes from here.

4. Teaching robotics to kids adds AI, self-driving functions

I’ve seen many STEM-based and robotic toys that aim to teach children the concepts of robotics through programming, but the new Zümi offering from Robolink (now looking for funding on Kickstarter) goes the additional step by adding in artificial intelligence, machine learning and self-driving vehicle concepts.

On the show floor, Robolink had an impressive setup where they showed examples of the instruction – kids could draw a particular location “monument” on a card, show that to the robotic car, which would then access its training based on previous drawings and drive to the location given. It’s a great way for kids to learn some of the concepts around training sets and machine learning.

We continue to have a long way to go in terms of getting more students interested in learning about robots and AI, but this is a great step in that direction. Best of luck to the Robolink team with Zümi.