As Coloradans were reminded this week, shoveling snow is a chore envied by no one.
And it isn’t just an annoyance for homeowners. For the contractors charged with keeping sidewalks and pathways clean, it can sometimes be an insurmountable task.
Because this type of work is seasonal, and at the mercy of mother nature, contractors typically have to hire people part-time and at the last minute. Yet even with the offer of large hourly wages, it’s tough to find people who want to go out into the snow to perform hard labor all day — much less people who will actually show up to do it.
That's where Left Hand Robotics saw an untapped opportunity.
Robots don’t get tired. Robots can start in the middle of the night. They don’t care if it’s cold."
“It was the perfect project for a robot,” said CEO and co-founder Terry Olkin. “Robots don’t get tired. Robots can start in the middle of the night. They don’t care if it’s cold. They can go for 10 or 12 hours at a time. All the things that, when you talk to people in this industry, they have a hard time getting humans to do.”
The company was founded in 2016 by two entrepreneurs and high school robotics mentors, who have spent the last 18 months developing and testing its first-generation self-driving snow robot.
You read that right.
The Snowbot Pro works by following a predetermined path via GPS technology. The user walks the path with Left Hand’s “pass collection tool” that collects information about the route and any objects it may encounter along the way, such as plants, steps or walls. That path can then be customized, telling the robot which way to brush the snow, where to take pictures or how quickly to drop salt or de-icer behind it.
Once that path is created, the robot is able to navigate it automatically and safely, stopping for obstacles, sending feedback in real-time and alerting the user to any issues it may come across while sweeping the snow.
It’s elegant in its simplicity, but developing a robot that functions in sub-freezing temperatures as well as unpredictable and unstructured environments was no easy feat.
“In the world of robotics, most research out there is done for indoor robots,” Olkin said. “When you’re indoors, it’s a much more controlled space. Operating in the snow is a much larger challenge. A lot of the research and technology assumes you have perfect weather.”
Olkin and his team have avoided this pitfall by employing a variety of sensors, as well as highly accurate (within a couple centimeters) GPS software.
Left Hand launched its pilot program this winter and, today, it will deliver three of its Snowbot Pro robots to the Saint Paul Winter Carnival in Minnesota, where the company is sponsoring the annual autonomous snowplow competition. The startup will also be sending robots to Minneapolis, where it hopes to gain some additional attention from Super Bowl crowds.
The company raised a $1.1 million seed round and will likely close another round of funding this year, after it’s gauged the success of the pilot program. Looking ahead, the startup plans to expand the capabilities of its robots to handle large-scale lawn mowing projects and, potentially, other outdoor labor.