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No Sleeping, No Days Off: Cobalt Robotics Aims to Replace Humans at Front Desks

A friendly human face that greets you when you enter an office building and keeps a close eye on the surroundings may one day be replaced by a computerized robot made by Cobalt Robotics.

The company’s cost-saving robots provide a variety of repetitive manual security services, such as visitor sign-in and document verification, including printing badges or visitor stickers, all at just 5-feet tall.

They monitor physical and cybersecurity, facilities and maintenance, environmental health and safety, and concierge services.

Mike LeBlanc, President & COO, Cobalt Robotics

“Cobalt Robots essentially serve as a traditional visitor management system,” Co-Founder, President and Chief Operating Officer Mike LeBlanc, who works out of the company’s Irvine office, told the Business Journal on March 21.

The company has $80 million in funding from investors such as venture capital firms Bloomberg BETA and Sequoia, and investment firm Coatue, and expects to close another significant round this year.

The 7-year-old firm is already showing revenue, though the amount isn’t disclosed.

“We have hundreds of robots out at customers,” according to LeBlanc. “We’re ramping up across the board.”

The company’s website also shows the robot in locations including a warehouse, museum, airport, indoor shopping area and even an indoor basketball court, indicating further possible uses for the units.


OSHA, Security

The company’s robot looks like a “skinny Amazon Alexa” and has a cobalt-blue screen, according to LeBlanc.

Trained operators, provided by the customer or by Cobalt via the company’s “Cobalt Command Center,” can appear on the blue screen of the robot to ask people to verify their identity by swiping their badges on the robot’s badge reader.

Those without are escorted by the robot either to the nearest exit or to a physical security team. If the person were to run away or cause damage to the robot, the operator would call the police, just as a guard would in a similar situation.

“The robot will go up and check all kinds of things that security directors care about, that facilities directors care about,” LeBlanc said.

For example, it can check for tripping hazards and improperly opened doors, which can let in criminal intruders as it focuses on corporate office spaces. It can duly report any problems and read badges.

The robots, which can use elevators, can even detect unwelcome people wandering into buildings, or violations of federal OSHA work-safety rules.

Pendleton Push

Cobalt Robotics now has 35 employees in Orange County and about 200 companywide.

The Irvine office at 300 Spectrum Center Drive holds business offices, sales, financing, marketing and human resources, and is where COO LeBlanc is based.

He co-founded the company along with CEO Travis Deyle, who holds a Ph.D. in Robotics from Georgia Institute of Technology, and Erik Schluntz, who holds a masters in electrical engineering from Harvard and is Cobalt’s chief technology officer.

LeBlanc was a Marine Corps officer for 13 years and served three tours in the Middle East, including two combat tours to Afghanistan. He later graduated from Harvard Business School and did a brief stint at Morgan Stanley.

The Orange County resident aims to hire plenty of veterans for Cobalt Robotics, with a Marine Corps base just south of OC, where he had his last duty station.

“We think that we have such a great talent market, all throughout Orange County, that we’re able to pull primarily from Camp Pendleton,” he says. He says more than 30% of the company’s employees are veterans, who contribute to high accountability and taking ownership.

A hiring push is underway.

“Right now, Cobalt is at the forefront of innovation in our industry. We hope to maintain that position by scaling our team, continuing to raise capital, and rolling out cutting edge security software products to complement our robots,” CEO Deyle told the Business Journal.

Ramping Up 

“People can tap on the screen of the robot, a person will come up on the screen, and they’ll be able to ask them what’s going on,” LeBlanc said. “They can say, ‘There’s a leak or spill over here,’ or ‘There’s someone in the office who’s making me uncomfortable.’”

The business model is a subscription service, with each robot costing $126,000 per year for a complete package including maintenance and hardware, according to LeBlanc.

Among the advantages are cost savings of 30% to 50% per year, when all factors are taken into account, the COO said. Using a robot guard versus a human can save a company $79,000 per year, according to a report by Forrester Research that was cited by Axios.

The automatons don’t get tired, ask for a raise or ever sleep.

They can be adapted to fit the customer’s needs.

“We’re training our machine learning to recognize things, like what does a threat look like,” LeBlanc said.

He estimates the market for robots like Cobalt’s is heading toward $70 billion.

FedEx, Slack  

The robot’s speed is limited to about 2.5 miles per hour for safety reasons.

Customers include FedEx, Slack, Ally Financial, Woven, and other fortune 500 companies.

Trained human operators are on-hand 24/7 via the Cobalt Command Center. The operators can pop up on the main screen of the robot and communicate directly with the customer at any time.

The robot utilizes machine learning and human-in-the-loop technology to identify and engage with personnel who are not clearly displaying their credentials.

Cobalt is gearing up to launch a new product this year called ‘Omni,’ a software program that automates the majority of Security Operations Center operator work.

Knightscope of Mountain View, and SMP Robotics Systems Corp. of Sausalito are examples of competitors, “although they operate primarily outdoors,” says LeBlanc.
“Cobalt’s robots are indoor only,” he adds.

Serious Robots: No Dancing or Coffee

Cobalt Robotics makes sleek machines that check visitors and patrol offices. Dancing and coffee serving aren’t in their job descriptions.

“Hollywood has made robots seem much more capable than they are,” says Cobalt Robotics ­Co-founder, President and Chief Operating Officer Mike LeBlanc.

Shifting along at 2.5 miles an hour, the robots are relatively slow and incapable of, well, kicking up their heels.

“We’ve had a lot of people that want us to be a coffee maker,” LeBlanc says. “That one actually comes up more often than you think.

“That is absolutely not what our company is working on.”

Cobalt also hasn’t given their machines a catchy name.

“While Cobalt has not officially named the robot, its customers sometimes give their robots fun names to help integrate the robot into company culture,” LeBlanc says. “Customers have even dressed them up for company parties and robot selfies are somewhat common.”

—Kevin Costelloe

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