Cobalt's robot is like a superhuman security guard... but it looks like office furniture

Autonomous car meets security camera in Cobalt's new robot, which was designed by renowned industrial designer Yves Béhar.
Written by Kelly McSweeney, Contributor

Image: Cobalt

This week Cobalt came out of stealth mode and introduced a mobile security robot. Just like a real security guard, the robot's main job is to patrol a building to watch for any unusual activity and report anything suspicious to the appropriate authorities.

"A fleet of Cobalt robots is comparable to an extremely competent guard with superhuman capabilities and omnipresent situational awareness across an entire organization," said Cobalt CEO and co-founder Travis Deyle in a statement.

It can stand guard day and night, and if it detects anything unexpected -- like an open window, a leaky pipe, or a person in the room -- then an offsite employee can use it as a telepresence robot to manage the situation without putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. The robot is loaded with more than 60 sensors and computational power that can handle machine learning algorithms.

The company was founded by roboticists who bring engineering and technical experience from SpaceX and GoogleX. Bloomberg Beta and Promus Ventures led Cobalt's seed round, with participation from Haystack, Subtraction Capital, Comet Labs, and various individual angel investors.

As far as design is concerned, the robot is nothing like the RoboCop we envisioned when we first heard about robotic security guards. Instead, it is a large cloth-covered gadget that is meant to blend in with minimalistic office décor. The Cobalt robot was designed by Yves Béhar, the industrial designer whose body of work includes iconic designs for Jawbone, Herman Miller, and Puma, to name just a few.

According to Béhar, "The Cobalt robot's semi-cylindrical self-driving mechanism, sensors and cameras are covered by a tensile fabric skirt. This helps maximize the access and usability of the internal technologies, creates airflow to prevent overheating, and conveys a soft and friendly persona."

The sensors include 360 degree day-night cameras, thermal cameras, point cloud cameras, laser scanners, a directional microphone array, long-range RFID, a badge reader, and environmental sensors including carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. It is just the right height to peer over cubicle walls. There is a touchscreen display that people can use to interact with the robot and video chat with a real person as needed.

Cobalt security robot

Image: Cobalt

The initial focus is security, but Travis Deyle, CEO and co-founder of Cobalt, told ZDNet that there are plans for expanding the robot's capabilities to assist facilities management, IT departments, and more.

He said, "We are working with customers to determine the most-valuable opportunities out of a large number of possibilities - everything from guest operations (check-in, escorting, directions) to mapping (Wi-Fi, space planning, etc)." The robot is already equipped with the right hardware, so upgrades will be done with over-the-air software updates.

This sounds like yet another robot that will eventually make human jobs obsolete. However, the Cobalt team said the robot will assist security guards rather than replace them altogether.

Béhar said, "We wanted to design Cobalt to represent a best-case scenario in which technology supports our daily lives. Technology can provide awareness, and accountability, keeping us safe without feeling authoritarian."

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