Innovation Heroes

TRANSCRIPT - Canada’s Cutest Delivery Robot featuring Tiny Mile’s Omar Elawi

July 19, 2021

Peter 

This episode is brought to you by SHI Esports. Visit shi.com/esports to learn more.

 

Omar 

People no longer have to get up on their bikes or get up on their cars then drive all the way to the restaurant, drive back home, get maintenance for their cars, get maintenance for their bikes. You can literally log in and do a few deliveries and log out and go about your day.

[music plays]

 

Peter 

Welcome to SHI's Innovation Heroes, the podcast exploring the people and businesses giving us hope in our drastically disrupted world. I'm your host, Peter Bean.

 

Peter 

[dramatic fanfare]

 

Announcer 

1999, AD. More than a generation away. And yet, dreams travel faster than light. And even now, scientists and planners are shaping the lives of our children who will live in the 21st century.

[music plays]

 

Peter 

Technology is funny. In some ways, we're living in a future that seemed impossible 50 years ago. But life doesn't always live up to sci fi-- at least, not yet. And especially not when it comes to robots. [beeping] When I was a kid, I really thought that by now we'd be living in a magical world populated by friendly, helpful robo pals. And yeah, I know we have driverless cars, and AI, and voice assistants. But it's a far cry from what I had actually pictured. I mean, where's my robot butler? Why do I have to keep folding my own laundry? [beeping] We might not be where my 10-year-old self was hoping, but we're getting there. Mainstream adoption of robotics is happening in some industries already. And for many others, it's just around the corner. So maybe it's time for us to take a closer look and get to the bottom of it all and find out where it's all headed next.

[music plays]

 

On today's show, we're doing things a little differently. I'll be taking you on a journey to see how robotics have evolved in real life, practical terms since the pandemic across a bunch of sectors like healthcare, ocean exploration, and even farming. After that, we'll meet a company in Toronto [TTC tone plays] that is actually bringing robots into our everyday lives, with a cute little guy named Geoffrey. We'll learn about what a day in the life of Geoffrey looks like, and what are some of the barriers to him becoming a bonafide futuristic delivery bot? Oh, and we'll answer the question that's top of mind for all of us: how many times has Geoffrey been messed with by a troublemaking passerby?

 

Man 

[honking] I'm walkin' here!

 

Peter 

 We Canadians might be polite, but can Torontonians really resist the urge to tip over a cute little robot as it crosses the street? As they say in the news business, the answer, my friends, will surprise you. So, stick around, and join us as we explore the wonderful but not so futuristic world of robotics today.

 

Peter 

[music plays]

[children laughing]

The robots of today look a little different than the hard, shiny droids that we were expecting. [computer chattering] Interest in the field known as soft robotics has positively exploded in the last 10 years, thanks to the impact it could have for important lifesaving industries, like search and rescue, and medicine. Even companies like Disney have taken notice of this nascent technology. The inflatable healthcare robot Baymax...

 

Baymax 

Hello, I am Baymax.

 

Peter 

...is based on technology that's been in development since the early 2000s. That being said, the idea of a soft robot performing emergency medicine, including a full body scan to assess your wellness and then any of the 10,000 medical procedures it comes programmed with, hasn't been brought to life outside of the world of animation. Robots like Baymax won't be replacing doctors anytime soon. But there's a lot of work being done right now to help keep this tech bouncing forward. [bouncing tone]

[music plays]

 

Speaking of Disney, there's been a few big advances recently in how movies and even commercials are shot thanks to another type of robot. One design for cinematographers. [film reel clicking] Created by the company SISU, this new wave of cinematic robots are so easy to use, they don't even require a dedicated technician. The on set cinematographer can use their own hand guidance to program the bot quickly and intuitively, making for faster and more precise shooting. SISU's mission is simple and awesome: make highly technical, creative work easier, opening up a world of use cases in other fields-- even highly specific ones, like picking weeds.

[music plays]

 

It's a thankless, back breaking job, but someone has to do it-- or some thing, thanks to Carbon Robotics. They've designed a self-driving robot that can detect, target, and eradicate weeds with a carbon dioxide laser.

 

Dalek 

Exterminate!

 

Peter 

Best of all, it doesn't cause any damage to the soil. This is a truly life changing technology for organic farmers who can't use pesticides, but also for the global food supply chain on a whole. Saving time, money, and increasing crop protection, these little box are already sold out for the year. [money ka-ching] So, you know they must be on to something good.

[music plays]

 

Robots aren't afraid to get down in the dirt, but they're also pushing the limit in another element: the seas.

[music plays]

 

Open Ocean Robotics has unveiled un-crewed, autonomous solar-powered boats that are able to better police illegal fishing and access previously unexplored depths. Humans have only managed to explore a measly 1/5 of the world's oceans. But with the power of robots, maybe we can glean a better understanding to this vital aspect of life on Earth. Of course, it's not all a utopian fantasy. I'm sure we've all had that fleeting worry that maybe robots might be getting too smart-- so smart that they become better at our jobs than we are. [suspenseful hit]

[music plays]

 

While we're still far off from completely replacing humans with robots, there are some jobs that have already seen that fear become a reality. In Edmonton, Alberta the commercial cleaning company, UltraShine has a robot named Bob who helps clean the floors at a local shopping mall. And Bob's not alone. Many other companies across all sorts of industries are hiring robots to help out. But far from taking human jobs, all statistics seem to indicate that companies who invest in robots tend to grow faster and hire more employees than they would otherwise. The flip side of this increase in jobs is that they tend to be more polarized-- either high end, or low end, with a decline in middle management positions. Basically, the robots aren't stealing our jobs. But they are kind of changing the jobs that we're used to doing. And that brings us to our guest today. From another Canadian city, and one that's near and dear to my heart. [TTC tone plays]

[music plays]

 

Enter Geoffrey, Tiny Mile's delivery robot. If you live in Toronto, you might have seen this small, pink robot scooting around the city streets. Not only is Geoffrey a harbinger of the future, he's also doing amazing things for the restaurant industry by saving them money and keeping people safer throughout the pandemic. He's not only super cute, he's also a real example of the future of robotics. Unfortunately, he can't talk yet. So instead, I'm chatting with Omar Elawi, the Account Manager of Partnerships at Tiny Mile Robotics, the company that makes Geoffrey. Omar, Geoffrey, welcome to Innovation Heroes.

 

Omar 

First, thanks for having me.

 

Peter 

So, I want to start with a question that I've been thinking about for a while, and I just got to ask: what's your greatest delivery ever that you've done so far with this project?

 

Omar 

So, I'd say the greatest delivery ever is actually something that happened very recently. So, we had this set of parents reach out to us asking if we can set up, like, a little delivery for their 4-year-old son. Apparently, you know, the kid had seen Geoffrey out on the streets, and he was just obsessed with the robot. He was just absolutely in love with the robot, and they asked if we can kind of set up a mock delivery where Geoffrey delivers some food as a birthday gift. So, we set that up, we decided to buy Geoffrey a little birthday hat just to-- [chuckles] And, yeah, it ended up going really, really well. The kid absolutely loved it. The parents kind of sent us an email afterwards saying that it made his whole day.

 

Peter 

I love that story. That's wonderful.

 

Omar 

[laughs] Yeah!

 

Peter 

All right, so into the real questions now, now that I got my question out of the way. For our listeners, do me a favor if you can, tell us a little bit about the company, what you do at Tiny Mile, and where this all came from?

 

Omar 

Sure, so basically our CEO, Ignacio, used to work-- him and co-founder Gellert used to work at this Uber ATG. So, the team that used to work on autonomous vehicles, basically, they worked on that team for a couple years. And they kind of sensed that autonomy is really, you know, it's a long ways away. So, they kind of decided to branch out, open their own company, and kind of start a little autonomous robot delivery service. And yeah, essentially what we do is focus on partnering with restaurants and doing food delivery. We mainly do it through Uber Eats, so we kind of become that restaurant’s Uber Eats courier for short distance deliveries. And you get the order, the robot shows up, you put the food in, and Geoffrey just goes and delivers that delivery.

 

Peter 

So, I'm curious, you know, we've been talking a lot about the effect the pandemic has had on people, and businesses, and societies this season. Do you think Geoffrey would be here if it wasn't for COVID-19?

 

Omar 

I mean, I would say yes, only because technically the company did start before COVID. But then, you know, the demand for Geoffrey, and for contactless delivery, and just delivery in general, obviously, increased dramatically. So, I would say it helped our case, but I wouldn't say it was, like, a make-or-break where if it weren't for the pandemic, then Geoffrey wouldn't have existed.

 

Peter 

Make sense. So that you mentioned this before, right? The deliveries, that the restaurant partners with you similar to how they partner with other delivery services, Geoffrey shows up, food goes in, and it delivers. Tell me a little bit more about the customer experience themselves, and why your customers would want to team up with Geoffrey for their deliveries?

 

Omar 

Working with Tiny Mile through Uber, which is how we kind of do all of our partnerships now, is we go through Uber's new service called BYOC, Bring Your Own Courier. And when we kind of utilize that service to partner up with a restaurant, it usually translates to anywhere from 5 to 15% in savings or commissions for these restaurants. But also, obviously, the robot is super marketable. If you're, you know, tech savvy, if you know how to utilize social media, the robot can really generate and bring in a lot of buzz. Even to the point, honestly, where you know you might start getting too many requests of like, "Hey, how can I order the robot?"

 

Peter 

Has that happened? Have you-- are you starting to see that?

 

Omar 

Yeah, we've had actually one restaurant kind of pause of us temporarily for that reason, is, like, they were just getting too many questions about, "I want the robot, how do I order the robot?"

 

Peter 

[laughing] That's wonderful, though!

 

Omar 

Yeah, I mean, I'm telling you, this is definitely a good problem to have. And I mean, even, like, that restaurant owner, the guy was pretty smart to the point where he was telling his clients if they're outside the range that the robot’s delivery is to just kind of order it to a nearby park. And literally, you just sit in the park, and you wait for Geoffrey to arrive with their food, just to get the experience.

 

Peter 

I love that! Look, I spend so much time talking to people about being afraid of robots, it's nice to hear a story where people are actually requesting them and want them. But I'm sure people right now at this point who've never heard of Tiny Mile or Geoffrey are wondering this, so let's address it now: how does Geoffrey know where to go pick up and drop off orders?

 

Omar 

So, they know how to where to go and how to navigate through two things, the dispatch system, and obviously, mainly the pilots that are controlling the robot. So, the pilot at all times is in full control of the robot, you know, the camera has a 360 field of view. How they kind of go, where to go and what to follow, the robot does come with a GPS built in. And then the dispatch system also kind of has its own GPS that connects to the GPS and the robot. So essentially when the pilot is driving, it's literally, like, your phone, your Google Maps.

 

Peter 

So, you mentioned earlier, right, that your founders were working on the automation project at Uber, right? Obviously, the vision here is automation. This isn't automated. It's being driven by a human, right, which I imagine is early stage. What are some of the barriers that you have now to overcome to go from being driven by a human to being automated? Or is that not even the goal?

 

Omar 

It is the goal to an extent. Semi-autonomy is 100% a goal that we're trying to achieve, to essentially kind of make the business model profitable and sustainable.

 

Peter 

Yep.

 

Omar 

And how we go about that is honestly just kind of over time through a lot of hardware engineers, and software engineers heading those projects of certain sensors to add to the robot, certain software to kind of, you know, utilize those sensors, things like that. So, it'll essentially be kind of an iterative process as we go along.

 

Peter 

So, I'm, like, picturing when this takes off, and you know, Tiny Miles and Geoffrey's are everywhere, and all over North America. Are we gonna have like a call center type environment of people sitting there, driving little robots, or helping little robots maybe overcome some of the things that automation can't? I mean, are you essentially through robots creating a whole new job description?

 

Omar 

Essentially, yeah. Kind of each robot needs its own set of handlers, whether that be the pilot, whether that be the dispatcher, whether that be the rescuer. That does kind of answer the common misconception of "Oh, will this robot steal my job?" It'll actually create more jobs. And in terms of like that call center environment, honestly, that is up in the air currently, because you know, the pilots right now really drive from home. And part of that is obviously COVID, but also part of that is, like, don't really need to come into work. It's literally like playing video game. [laughs] So, you know, you just wake up and connect your controller to your laptop and you start delivering, so...

 

Peter 

Wow, this is going to change a lot. [chuckles] I mean, the Uber driver of the future sitting on their couch with an Xbox controller driving robots on their TV.

 

Omar 

100%.

 

Peter 

That's wild.

 

Peter 

[music plays]

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[music plays]

 

Peter 

So, look, I've ever heard that making Geoffrey cute was a strategic choice, right? Tell me about the thinking behind the design decisions of Geoffrey.

 

Omar 

So, I mean, first of all the color, I have to-- we have to give props to Ignacio, our CEO, that's his favorite color and that's kind of one of his main pushes, is, like, he wanted the robots to be pink. In terms of the cuteness, so, like, the heart eyes, the little smile, the kind of effect of having, like, all the features of the face kind of smushed together, that was definitely all on purpose because, you know, some people do have some negative associations when they think robots or automation. And you really don't want that to kind of overshadow the real goal and kind of vision of the company. So basically, you know, the idea was, let's make the robot cute, let's make it have a design where it's easy to kind of relate to the robot and accept it. And hopefully that will kind of lead to faster adoption, and kind of acceptance of this whole idea of robots delivering your food.

 

Peter 

So, I want to ask you about the business. You know, I've worked in startups for most of my life, and I realize what traumatic experience that can be sometimes. [chuckles] And look, not all startups are perfect. So, I'm curious what some of the things are that you've had to work through, some of the biggest challenges, the biggest scare moments that you've been on since you started this journey?

 

Omar 

I can think of kind of one scenario where we had one of the older version of the robots break down on the side of the street, and we were kind of dispatching a rescuer to go and kind of retrieve the robot and bring it back to do its fixes. And as that was happening, as the rescuer was on their way, we noticed this kind of, like, a truck pulled up and started looking at the robot and pointing at it. [laughs] And then we noticed that they just picked up the robot and put it in their pickup truck and started driving. And we were like, "Is this robot about to get stolen?!" We kind of all started scrambling trying to figure out what's the best thing to do, because obviously we still have the cameras, and we have the GPS. And then, you know, surprisingly, the person apparently had driven it to our location, because that's where he usually he sees the robots. [Peter laughs] He was apparently just driving the robot over to us to help the robot get some assistance. And we didn't even know the person, we never talked to him. He literally put the robot next to the office, went into the restaurant next to us and told them, "Hey, I saw the robot. I know, you know, their headquarters is somewhere nearby here. I just wanted to put the robot here, and now I'm going to head out."

 

Peter 

Have you had any not so nice and selfless run-ins? I mean, look, I love Toronto. I've lived here my whole life. But, you know, we're not as nice as maybe the world thinks we are sometimes. There's got to be-- somebody's got to have messed with Geoffrey, vandalized him, stolen-- anything like that that's happened?

 

Omar  

I mean, I'm with you. Like, I have lived in Toronto for a while. And I've always thought people here are super nice. But I was like, there always has to be those few people that you know, do something. But honestly, you'd be surprised. People have been so incredibly nice to the robot. They've helped it so much.

 

Peter 

That's awesome.

 

Omar 

In terms of vandalism, honestly, the only thing that happens is, like, people would, you know, step in front of it to see if it's gonna stop. And obviously, it always does. Or, like, they kind of maybe just nudge it back with their foot to see what happens. But, you know, nothing really happens. That's about it. I mean, honestly, the maybe the closest thing to vandalism that we've had is once we had, like, a group of kids throw snowballs at Geoffrey. They seemed to kind of be playing with the robot. But that's about it. Like, honestly, generally people help the robot, wave at it. Like I said, in the older versions, when the wheel would occasionally pop off, they would kind of help set it aside. And they would actually even go through the trouble of emailing us, or sending us a text on Instagram, just like, "Hey, I just saw your little guy on the side of the street. Just wanted to let you know that it you know, it lost one of its wheels," or something like that.

 

Peter 

That's awesome.

 

Omar 

It really is.

 

Peter 

I love the people are being helpful. Just never, ever, ever allow Geoffrey to do a pickup on King Street West when the world goes back to normal, because there's no way he's surviving that. I don't care how nice people are. [laughing]

 

Peter 

Too busy, too crazy.

 

Peter 

As a robotics company, what value do you see in robots entering society?

 

Omar 

So honestly, when it comes to that, I always think back to this type of answer that I usually get from, again, Ignacio, our CEO, is-- we kind of liken it to the invention of the washing machine. The washing machine, you know, back in the days, it kind of-- washing your clothes took so much time. And then society was introduced to the washing machine, which is something that washes your clothes for you. And it saves you about one, two, three hours a week, every week of your life. And when you kind of zoom out and look at that from like a-- you know, a general community standpoint, that's a whole lot of extra hours to cook food, go out, see friends, get work done, read books, whatever it is that you're interested in. So, this is somewhat the same thing, it's like, you no longer have people having to get up on their bikes or get up on their cars and drive all the way to the restaurant, and deliver these orders. You know, drive back home, get maintenance for their cars, get maintenance for their bikes, things like that. The robot will kind of open up a lot of that space and hopefully have that effect on society where it opens up a lot of free space because delivery is a lot more seamless, and a lot faster, and you can-- you can literally log in and out from the, you know, safety of your home and log in and do a few deliveries, log out, and go about your day. So definitely very convenient in that sense, obviously, other than even, like, the safety kind of aspect of no longer having so many couriers and cars out in the streets. That'll definitely have a huge effect on, you know, CO2 emissions and just greenhouse gases, in general. You know, the thought that we deliver a burrito using a car I'm sure will look crazy to us in about 10-15 years. So hopefully, that's one thing that'll kind of create a huge shift in the way society views delivery, and kind of the sustainability of delivery nowadays.

 

Peter 

Alright, my final question for you. What's next for Tiny Mile? What's on the roadmap? What can people expect to see from you in the near future that you're really excited about?

 

Omar 

Sure. I mean, the one thing definitely most excited about is just growing our fleet. That's honestly one of the main focuses, is just grow the fleet, improve the fleet management, you know, continue to have business development and growth in terms of onboarding new restaurants and adding new partners. And then, you know, obviously, the long, long term potential, even exploring other avenues, you know, things like Point A to Point B delivery, or even, I don't know, pharmacy delivery...

 

Peter 

Vaccine delivery?

 

Omar 

Vaccine delivery, anything! [chuckles] Retail-- essentially, you know, what I always tell to people is if it fits in the robot, we'll deliver it. So, there's really, you know, a lot of hopefully future applications for the robot in terms of delivery. Especially, obviously, last mile delivery.

 

Peter 

That's awesome. Thank you, Omar, this has been great. I really enjoyed this conversation and I just want to wish you and the whole team at Tiny Mile all the best in what you're trying to do. It's an admirable task. I hope that you are successful. And I can't wait to see Geoffrey drive up to my house and deliver me some food. I-- I just can't wait

 

Omar 

Soon, hopefully soon. And thank you so much, I appreciate your time, and this was definitely a great experience.

 

Peter 

Thank you.

[music plays]

 

We're not at a point where we all have self-driving cars waiting for us in our driveways. But we might be there soon. Robots like Geoffrey and the companies behind them, from Tiny Mile, to Tesla, and beyond, are making some amazing, helpful, and adorable tech right now. Maybe I don't have what it takes to be a Geoffrey pilot, but soon enough he'll be all grown up and probably won't even need one. Who knows what extraordinary things he'll be accomplishing by then?

[music plays]

 

Peter 

Innovation Heroes is an SHI podcast, with new episodes streaming every second Thursday on Apple, Spotify, Google and everywhere else. If you liked this episode and you want to be our hero, leave us a 5-star review on your podcast listening app of choice. Next time on Innovation Heroes, I've heard this word thrown around a lot lately. NTF, TFN...I got it! NFT: non-fungible tokens. But WTF does that mean? I'll be speaking with Costa Kladianos, Vice President of Innovation and Technology at Canlan Sports about how blockchain tech is changing the world of sports. So, listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You won't want to miss it.

[music fades out]

 

Peter 

This episode is brought to you by SHI Esports. Learn more and start your free consultation today at shi.com/esports.

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