Price check! Big brands turn to in-store drones to peep products

There's a $1 trillion problem in retail. Major brands are betting autonomous drones can be part of the solution.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

If you live in a handful of pilot regions around the country, you may already have seen shelf-scanning robots in your local grocery stores. But shelf-scanning drones?

That's one option that will be available to major brands -- including Circle K, General Mills, and Johnson & Johnson -- in a series of new partnerships with Pensa Systems, which is developing autonomous technologies, including drones, that use computer vision and artificial intelligence for retail in-store data and analytics.

Pensa is also celebrating an $11 million in Series A, bringing total funding to $28 million.

"We are thrilled to see increased uptake of our approach to detecting stockouts and optimizing the store shelf in the new omnichannel world, and we are excited to leverage our latest funding round to scale our go-to-market efforts to meet rising global demand," says Pensa president and CEO Richard Schwartz.

Autonomous shelf-scanning technologies are meant to increase efficiency by solving for the $1.75 trillion "ghost economy," defined by stockouts, inaccurate price execution, and lack of product location optimization industry-wide. Terrestrial robots like Simbe's flagship Tally robot can be deployed to autonomously roam aisles at grocery stores and other outlets to tackle the problem of poor stock management, which is so pervasive that inventory mishaps account for more lost revenue than theft.

Pensa takes a different approach. Unlike its competitors, which utilize ground-based robots, Pensa is using cell phones and aerial drones to move its visual perception platform around store aisles. One advantage of drones is that they're far less expensive to customize and deploy than developing an autonomous mobile robot from scratch. Pensa's drones utilize brace cages around their propellers and look a bit like flying science fair projects.

Pensa now works across multiple retail formats like grocery and drugstore channels, and is now expanding to convenience stores such as Circle K. 

"Major brands and retailers are realizing that Pensa has the best answer to the trillion-dollar problem of in-store visibility, which has only become more acute with the explosion of omnichannel," said Chris Shonk, managing director of ATX Venture Partners. "Pensa's patented and frankly groundbreaking AI approach and novel use of automation is generating at-scale primary data and analytics for the first time in this last true black box of our modern economy."

According to a spokesperson, other investors in Pensa include James McCann, the former CEO of Ahold USA, Carrefour and Tesco in Europe, via the Food Retail Ventures fund, as well as Commerce Ventures, Revtech Ventures, ZX Ventures, the corporate investment arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev, and other retail sector and technology funds and well-known industry leaders.

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