Texas

Robot adds to security in Houston's posh River Oaks District

HOUSTON (AP) - The security robot stopped in front of its boss, who had blocked its path in the parking garage of the swanky River Oaks District.

The Houston Chronicle reports the egg-shaped patroller spun slowly on its wheels, scanning for a way to skirt its human counterpart without barging past. The boss matched its movements. A deep voice emerged from within its polished white shell.

"Excuse me," it said.

It then scooted away, whistling a tune.

"It's pretty patient," said Matt Hare, an account manager for Allied Universal, the company that monitors the high-end shopping center on Westheimer.

The robot, named ROD2, recently became the latest addition to a patrol team eager to experiment with fast-evolving technology that has captured the attention of robotics developers. Its eyelike cameras continuously compile information on its surroundings and monitor for unusual activity, providing extra surveillance in an area where expensive cars and high-end stores might tempt thieves.

The robot, designed by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, is one of nearly 40 patrolling shopping centers, parking lots and business properties across the country. The company expects that number to reach 100 by year's end.

"We're seeing the potential for robotics to become an enabling technology for every industry," said Andra Keay, managing director of the nonprofit group Silicon Valley Robotics. "That means moving into business, into retail, into a whole range of other areas."

The 5-foot-tall autonomous robot resembles an armless R2D2, more friendly than calculating. Surprised shoppers stop it on the sidewalk for selfies and Snapchat posts, diverting it from its usual activity.

"It does draw a lot of attention," Hare said.

Left alone, the robot roves a designated area with a complex set of sensors that enable it to detect obstacles, stay on track and monitor its energy levels. It works around the clock, stopping to charge every couple of hours.

It's equipped to read license plates, recognize familiar faces and detect what could be suspicious behavior. It can also sense extreme heat, something it has done often since starting work under the oppressive Houston sun.

It hasn't yet recorded any trouble at the River Oaks District, save for the time when a car bumped it while backing out. Humans buffed out the scuff.

In other venues, though, Knightscope robots have recorded information that helped law enforcement officials issue an arrest warrant for a sexual predator, apprehend a thief and track down a vandal.

Other companies, including Cobalt Robotics, have also rolled out security robots, a growing area of interest in the startup world. But Knightscope is one of the best-known players in the field, Keay said.

"They're certainly leading in the way," she said.

Knightscope robots face a distinct challenge: They generally operate outdoors in somewhat unpredictable environments, challenging their developers to account for a range of potential scenarios. One of its robots made headlines in July when it apparently tripped into a fountain outside an office in Washington, D.C.

At the River Oaks District, the robot is confined to part of the parking garage and areas between Cartier and the iPic theater. The rest of the security team pays special attention when it takes a route that requires crossing the street.

"It's just inherently more difficult than an interior environment," Keay said.

On the sidewalks, the River Oaks District robot greets shoppers with "Good morning," or "Good afternoon." It engages with a few other phrases, but those who linger too long snapping photos occasionally prompt its blue lights to turn red in frustration.

"It's very polite," Hare said. "But we see it get mad all the time on camera."
 


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