From DARPA to Vecna: New CEO on How Automation Can “Elevate” Humans

[Updated 1/18/18, 9:33 am. See below.] Dan Patt spent the past six years surveying the robotics field, holding a couple of positions with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that enabled him to work on self-driving cars, drones, and other automation technologies.

Now, he’s jumping into the private sector and going all in on warehouse automation systems, as the new CEO of Vecna Robotics, the logistics robots business of Cambridge, MA-based Vecna Technologies. (The 20-year-old parent company, which reorganized itself into three separate divisions last year, is led by co-founder Debbie Theobald. Patt (pictured above) is the industrial robotics division’s first CEO, a spokeswoman says.)

Patt’s new job was announced last week. He joins Vecna Robotics as warehouse automation is on an upswing. Retailers, manufacturers, and other companies are contending with an explosion in online shopping and increasingly complicated supply chains—as well as pressure to deliver goods fast.

Patt sees his new role as an opportunity to “help shape the future of automation, as it’s really applied to industrial operations,” he says in a phone interview. “It’s going to be really disruptive in logistics, material handling, and e-commerce.”

A wave of logistics robotics startups has risen in the six years since Amazon acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million, and venture capitalists are placing sizable bets on some of these newer players. For example, Fetch Robotics picked up $25 million in December, Locus Robotics nabbed $25 million in November, and 6 River Systems scooped up $15 million in July. Other companies competing in this broad sector include RightHand Robotics, Soft Robotics, and NextShift Robotics. [Added more example companies.—Eds.]

“It is a crowded space,” admits Patt, whose company hasn’t raised any venture capital. Who becomes the ultimate winner is “going to come down to who can deliver a seamless, value-adding product or service to a customer.”

Up to this point, logistics robotics companies have “struggled with product maturity,” Patt argues.

“Solutions either require big changes to [a customer’s] infrastructure—so, capital investment—or are brittle and don’t work,” he says. “But the really exciting thing about where Vecna Robotics is right now is… we’re starting to see products mature in service that are working really well and can actually support customers’” operations. (He says his company is generating revenue, but he declined to share details.)

Vecna Robotics makes a variety of robots that can tote goods around warehouses and manufacturing floors, as well as software that assigns tasks using artificial intelligence techniques. The robots are equipped with sensors that enable them to navigate their surroundings, but a remote team of humans supervises the machines and can step in to control them if there are any issues, Patt says. Over time, he says, the robots’ software can learn from their experiences and can improve their capabilities—Patt calls it “assisted machine learning.”

Part of Vecna’s pitch is its technology can be implemented on a smaller scale initially, if the customer wishes, so that it’s a lower up-front investment, Patt says. The software brains behind Vecna’s robots can also be configured to direct and communicate with machines from other vendors, the company has said.

“We make it low-risk to a customer, and relatively seamless implementation,” Patt says. “As the system gets better and better, you build trust with a human crew operating in there, and you build the system’s reliability. Ultimately, you’re a clear part of their value chain.”

Patt says he took the Vecna job in part because he’s impressed by its technology. He also embraces the company’s culture of trying to drive the future of automation “in a way that is beneficial for humanity.”

Some robotics executives try to downplay the impact of increased automation on human workers in the coming years, but Patt doesn’t avoid the issue. “It’s true the labor market will be widely disrupted—absolutely,” he says. “It’s going to be a painful time.”

But it’s possible to design robotics systems in a way that can “elevate the humans,” he argues—creating opportunities for different, but perhaps more satisfying jobs.

“I think it’s our responsibility to help steer [automation] in a beneficial direction,” he says. “If we apply automation right, we can harness the human’s mind, harness their creativity. And yes, we still need humans in this [warehouse and manufacturing] environment.”

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