Thanksgiving Pie, Brought to You By “Chuck” the Warehouse Robot

Xconomy Boston — 

Robots may not have taken all of our jobs (yet), but they are already starting to nibble at our volunteer hours at holiday bake sales.

And this one has a taste for pie.

Chuck, the creation of Waltham, MA-based 6 River Systems, was sizing up Community Serving’s 26th annual Pie in the Sky bake sale this week. The mobile warehouse logistics robot hopes to help sort the 20,000 or so pies donated by caterers and restaurants that—over the course of 48 hours before Thanksgiving day—need to be inspected and delivered to distribution points across the Bay State.

The pies were ordered by people in eastern Massachusetts who will pick them up at local sites like banks or community centers before Thanksgiving and the funds raised for the pies will help Community Servings cover its operational expenses to make the 2,500 daily meals year round it delivers to people with critical and chronic conditions.

“It’s all in the service of feeding people who can’t feed themselves,” says Community Servings CEO Dave Waters. His nonprofit not only juggles the thousands of meals a day, it also offers 15 options for varying medical diets, any three of which can be combined into a single dish.

“Logistics are sort of baked into our DNA,” Waters says.

The same is true for Chuck. The robot’s base holds the majority of its machinery, cameras, sensors similar to those used in autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence software that allows it to navigate a warehouse. Chuck has two platforms for bins or flat items, which workers—who trail Chuck throughout the warehouses it roams—can stack objects on.

In its make-shift distribution hub packed with thousands of pies slated for delivery to more than a hundred locations, Chuck—and its engineers—spent Tuesday mapping out how the robot would be able to pitch in even more than it did this year. As a first-year volunteer, Chuck took marching orders from a Sony PlayStation controller; next year, he’ll hopefully find his own way.

The plan would be for Chuck to ferry pies cleared for delivery to teams organizing the pies into groups of orders, which will be delivered to distribution sites across the state.

Former employees of Kiva Systems—the mobile warehouse logistics robotics company Amazon bought for $775 million in 2012—founded 6 River Systems in 2015 to build a similar robot for third-party logistics companies, smaller retailers, and warehouse operators who couldn’t afford larger, more expensive systems. In April, 6 River Systems raised $25 million in a Series B round of financing led by Menlo Ventures to enhance Chuck’s decision-making capabilities and add 80 more employees.

For his day job in warehouses across the U.S., Chuck leads a worker picking products from one area to another until each order is filled. The robot then drives the order to the shipping area for processing. Meanwhile a new Chuck—with empty bins and another order to be filled—is dispatched to the worker and the process repeats.

Fergal Glynn, 6 River’s VP of marketing, says the company has hundreds of Chucks in warehouses across the U.S., and over Black Friday the units will help ship one million products.

The hope is next year Chuck will help Community Servings be more efficient sorting through all the dessert orders.

“That’s a very manual process moving the pies from this location here all the way across (the warehouse). And you think about 19,000 pies that are coming here over a few days, that can lead to a lot of congestion with people going back and forth,” Glynn says. “What we want to do is be able to automate that part of the process so that when it comes to Thanksgiving 2019, with the same number of volunteers, the organization can grow and handle more pies.”

Asked if Chuck has a favorite pie flavor, Glynn says with a laugh: “Like any good Bostonian, Chuck loves the pecan pie.”