Six-foot-five-inch Marty works hard. Spilled cereal on aisle 4? Marty doesn’t just walk past. Squished tomatoes in the produce department? Marty will let someone know. Soon Marty—a googly-eyed robot-on-wheels—could roll into a grocery store near you.
Marty is actually a whole robot fleet made by Badger Technologies. Badger CEO Tim Rowland says Marty’s been on the job for a year in a pilot program. The Badger bots rove aisles in nearly 500 grocery stores looking for debris, hazards, and spills.
Rowland says robots operate at certain Giant, Martin’s, and Stop & Shop stores. Giant has two working at Pennsylvania stores. There Marty is an in-store celebrity. Shoppers inspect the tall, gray machine with the (non-functioning) googly eyes. Some stop to take selfies. Store executives plan to expand Marty’s territory to all 172 Giant stores by the middle of this year.
Each robot has eight cameras—some directed at the floor and others at shelves. Marty navigates using “lidar” (laser light) sensors. Lidar allows the robot to pause when shoppers and their carts veer into its path.
A robot at a Massachusetts Stop & Shop store alerted store associates to a fallen price tag in one aisle and a sprig of herbs in another. After moving along momentarily, Marty returned to each scene. It waited until an employee confirmed the mess had been picked up.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union—the group that represents Giant and Stop & Shop workers—doesn’t trust Marty. UFCW President Marc Perrone believes “automation in grocery and retail stores is a direct threat to the millions of American workers who power these industries and the customers they serve.”
Some other humans don’t trust Marty either. During the test phase, off-site control center workers (in the Philippines!) carefully reviewed Marty’s images before triggering a “clean-up on aisle two” message over a store loudspeaker.
CEO Rowland says Marty could someday be repurposed to help oversee inventory. Out of canned corn or coffee? Marty notices gaps on store shelves easily. It could be programmed to re-order supplies on the spot.
After the pilot program, Giant insists Marty “made in-store operations more efficient and gave employees more time to attend to customers.” Were Marty human, we’d call him “a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
It’s good to evaluate technology: After all, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Will Marty replace human workers? As long as the robots’ work needs to be doublechecked by live bodies, human workers are probably safe.