“My friends call me Murphy. You call me...RoboCop.” Twenty-nine years later, the dialogue from the 1987 flick continues to be a favourite of sci-fi fans. The protagonist of the movie, Alex Murphy is an honest cop whose body is fatally wounded but is resurrected to become a part-man and a part-machine cop who revolutionises America’s police force.
But what was in the realm of fantasy, is getting scripted for real in the US. The only difference is that there is no gun-totting RoboCop, instead, Knightscope has unleashed a 300-pound robot or, as the company calls it, Autonomous Data Machine (ADM) that is doubling up as a security guard to secure both commercial and residential premises. Founded by William Santana Li, the Mountain View-based start-up is an outcome of the founder’s own anger against the 9/11 terror attack on his birthplace, New York, and second, is the fact that there has been absolutely no tech innovation in the physical security domain. “We got a camera, a sten gun and a bullet resistant vest and that’s about it…and that’s how we are going to make a massive difference in the society,” says Li rather sarcastically.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, violent crimes was up 4% in 2015; murders, in particular, rose to 11% — the highest in a single year since 2008, and the fastest rise since 1990. “I think there is a good portion of our population, especially in the US that is very tired of waking up every morning and seeing some horrific thing being telecast. And then what happens? A political leader stands up and says, “We send out our thoughts and prayers” I can assure you that no amount of thoughts and prayers from any level of political leaders is going to fix this problem,” says Li, who co-founded the venture in 2013 along with Stacy Stephens, a former cop from Texas.
Knightscope’s answer to the growing security problem is the K5 and its smaller version, K3, which can recognise people, speak to them via recorded messages and read licence plates. The 5-feet tall and 3-feet wide dome-headed, wheeled robot uses 360-degree video cameras, 16 microphones, thermal imaging and sensors. It gathers real-time data from a site and transmits it back to security professionals to monitor. The robots, which can operate on wireless or cellular network, after patrolling for couple of hours, can autonomously find and dock itself to a charge pad for 10 to 20 minutes. “The idea is to provide 100% uptime for our clients,” says Li. Though the robots can technically go up to 18 mph, they are programmed to move in the 1-3 mph range, depending on the vicinity. The global positioning system and the laser ranging instrument help the robots to avoid obstacles and find their way around on its own. The K3 and K5 robots generate over 90 terabytes of data per machine, every year, providing an unprecedented ability to understand the environment at all times. The robots can be remotely monitored and scheduled to conduct different types of patrols depending on the clients’ need and nature of business. “Our technology stack is analogous to that used in self-driving cars, (which is still in trial stage), but we have already commercialised the autonomous technology from 2015 and is being used by real clients,” points out Li, who has a 25-member team comprising 8 Indians, who are mostly engineers.
Though it’s a law enforcement enhancing tool, Santana Li for now is focussing on corporate clients instead of the government. “Though I love my country, it’s very complicated. So our focus is on business first. Corporate campuses, malls, stadiums, hospitals, anywhere indoors or outdoors which deploy private security guards is our market,” says Li, who had earlier worked with Ford.
The startup’s customers include the likes of Qualcomm, Uber, basketball team Sacramento Kings, Microsoft and Dignity Health, which is one of the largest private hospitals in California. Knightscope rents out robots starting at about $7 an hour. “We typically sign 1, 2 or 3 year contracts,” says Li. The pricing, though, could vary depending on the tenure of the services and how much data storage is required to be maintained.
The big swing for Knightscope is the fact that it is currently offering the robots at a significantly lower rate compared to the average hourly pay of security guards. The nation’s over million security guards earn an average of $12/hr or close to $25,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The wages though can vary depending on the years of experience. The US spends $179 billion a year on police protection, legal proceedings, and corrections. Some clients that are looking for literary cost reductions incur $50 million to $150 million a year on security guards. According to Knightscope, the cost difference of 24-hours coverage of three shifts by three human security guards, when compared with 24-hours of coverage by two robots is huge. The start-up estimates the total cost at $936 for 24 hours compared with $1,800 for a team of only human guards.
Though the general perception is that robots will result in loss of jobs, Li thinks it’s otherwise. He believes the robots’ capabilities will complement human security staff and not replace them. “Machines are awesome at doing monotonous job over and over again and are also really good at doing high concentration work. For instance, if there are around 1,700 licence plates, some of those are connected to felons, as a human how easy will it be to go through the exercise compared to a machine? There is no comparison,” says Li. Robots, in his view, are enablers and not disruptors. “All we are aiming to do is to give this level of supercomputing capabilities to security guards specifically for their job. For us, software plus hardware plus human beings is the most powerful combination,” says Li.
The company has currently partnered with some of the largest US private security firms such as Allied Universal for primary distribution to clients. Steve Claton, president of Allied’s southwest security services, was quoted as saying, “The cost of labour is going up, with the pay raises and healthcare. We’re at that intersection where it is a viable option to look at replacing a manned position — or augmenting it — with a robot.” Similarly, Mark McCourt, vice president, enterprises services, at Allied Universal believes the first jobs to be replaced will be non-sensitive positions, such as the graveyard shift. ”Eventually, robots could fill positions that he calls, “the three Ds” — dull, dangerous and dirty. “It makes sense to put a robot there,” he told the LA Times.
Knightscope is also looking at other ways of monetising its robots. The company believes it can provide dynamic risk assessment to an insurance company by the minute, as opposed by the year. Because it patrols a lot of locations and stores the data, it could provide the safest way home and sell that data to Apple and Google for navigation. “In some cases, we have clients who are trying to add security, they know they have some vulnerabilities, but don’t know how to add it efficiently. This is also an opportunity,” adds Li.
Funding a future
This is not the first time Li and Stacy Dean Stephens are pairing together. The duo were co-founders of Carbon Motors Corporation, which had grand plans of building high-tech cars for the police force. The venture, which had got $7 million in public grants, went bankrupt in 2013. Li, however, does not want to talk on what went wrong and terms the episode as a closed chapter.
But the failure has not held investors back from backing Knightscope. Li managed to raise around $15 million thus far, and some of its big investors include Flextronics Lab IX, NTT Docomo Ventures, and Konica Minolta. “Knightscope’s security solution utilises some of today’s hottest technologies in Silicon Valley — autonomous technology, robotics, big data, predictive analytics, sensors and social engagement — and we are delighted to help Knightscope define the next generation of public safety where technology is embraced for the betterment of society,” Ekta Sahasi, vice-president, Konica Minolta, was quoted as saying when the deal was announced.
This year, in August, Knightscope announced that over 800 potential investors have pledged $14 million for its possible mini-initial public offer. Li believes there is immense scope for funding the sector and feels it’s only a matter of time before things begin to change. “Physical security is an under-invested space as most investment funds consider it quasi-government and don’t want to be an investor. But if you look at it, there has been almost no innovation [in the physical security space] over the past 100 years.”
Currently, Knightscope, which hopes to deploy 50 to 100 robots in the near future, is operating in 12 cities in California. But Li’s ambition is audacious. “Given the global spend on security is over $500 billion a year, we are talking of $30 billion a year company,” says Li, but is quick to add, “for now, we are not looking beyond the US.”