Sheffield is European headquarters for US robotics firm revolutionising supermarket shopping

Red McKay, MD of Bossanovas European operations, with a robot in the Sheffield office. Pic Steve Ellis
Red McKay, MD of Bossanovas European operations, with a robot in the Sheffield office. Pic Steve Ellis

Small children want to give him a hug or follow him around the store, teenagers take photos and some shoppers ask him questions such as “where are the peas?”

But Robert the robot has a job to do and if you stand in front of him long enough he’ll back up, go round and carry on.

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Fitted with 24 lights, eight cameras and the equivalent of 10 laptops of computer power, his job is mundane but the impact could be immense.

For this is the future of supermarket shelf checkers, scooting around completely autonomously, scanning and photographing every product in even the biggest stores in under two hours.

And he wirelessly sends vast amounts of data to the stockroom, warehouse and head office with about double the accuracy of a human – and no post-lunch slumps.

Robert belongs to BossaNova which is taking the US by storm and has just set up European headquarters in Sheffield.

The Sheffield team from left: Glenn Faulkner, Stacey Turner, Ashley Sturman and Lee Sharrocks. Pic Steve Ellis.

The Sheffield team from left: Glenn Faulkner, Stacey Turner, Ashley Sturman and Lee Sharrocks. Pic Steve Ellis.

In 50 Walmarts over there, the firm is predicting Robert will soon be a familiar ‘face’ in supermarkets over here, joining the vanguard of intelligent devices changing human lives such as Amazon’s Alexa, driverless cars and robotic vacuum cleaners.

Red McKay is head of the eight-strong Sheffield office whose title – MD of European operations – shows exactly where BossaNova’s ambitions lie.

He said: “A big part of the robot being autonomous is, as much as possible, that you don’t want shoppers interacting with it. We have had small children put their arms round it and the majority of people think it’s cleaning the floor, but it’s a tool to radically change retail.”

Robert checks whether products are in the right place, or missing, and have the right price, combating the errors that creep in when thousands upon thousands of products are repeatedly moved.

The firm has offices in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Sheffield.

The firm has offices in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Sheffield.

And while some fear he will take jobs, Red insist the opposite is true.

Robots free staff from a monotonous, hated job and gives them time to help shoppers, pack bags or pick orders for people ordering online, he says.

The technology is being piloted in South Yorkshire where staff, rather than seeing him as a threat, are proud their store has been picked for such a prestigious trial, he adds.

“I have absolute confidence it will create jobs for our children and improve lives. Don’t worry, this is good.”

Bossanova robot scanning shelves.

Bossanova robot scanning shelves.

BossaNova employs eight but will need another 42 people by the end of next year.

Red is planning two ‘spoke’ offices in Europe within the next five years, reporting to Sheffield.

But if the firm’s robots will work in warehouses or pharmacies – in fact anywhere where items must be stacked, remembered, and moved – the sky is the limit.

In total, the company employs 200 in San Francisco and the US steel city of Pittsburgh.

It set up in Sheffield in August but has already had meetings with government, which is keen on artificial intelligence. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy wants a ‘Robert’ for the foyer at its headquarters in London, Red says.

Since opening in Sheffield, Bossanova has helped five talented children by contributing to the cost of sending the youngsters, aged between seven and 12, to the World Educational Robot Contest, in Shanghai this month. Parents have had help with funds so children can attend.

SHEFFIELD THE BEST CHOICE FOR PIONEERING ROBOT FIRM

Bossanova’s US bosses admitted they didn’t know the UK – so they asked Sheffield-born Red McKay where to locate its European headquarters.

His choice was between Oxford, where the firm works with robotics researchers, and Sheffield, where he lives.

Red said: “Sheffield’s got word-class resources, two universities and a great quality of life. It’s a fantastic place to live and I don’t think the secret will be kept much longer. Certain areas of industry have found that out and are arriving already .”

The company employs eight but will need another 42 soon, he added.