Aro aims to make autonomous robots accessible to all

· The Pulse

Faheem Khan thinks about that moment in the mid-20th century when mainframe computers were starting to help big corporations, but small businesses had little access. That's where we are now with AI-enabled robots, said the co-founder and CEO of Aro Robotic Systems.

The Amazons of the world can afford to operate their own warehouses with autonomous robots. "We thought, 'How we can solve the problem for smaller businesses?'" Khan told Taproot.

His Edmonton-based company emerged from "stealth mode" about six months ago, after three years of work to develop versatile, affordable, and easy-to-use autonomous robots for indoor industrial use. The Aro-S looks like a souped-up flatbed trolley without a handle. But it can "see" where it's going with sensors. It can learn where to go and what to do when it encounters an obstacle. And it can do more than one job.

"These are AI-based multitasking robots," Khan said. "You just buy one, and then you get the work done of multiple robots. If your robot is moving your boxes (or) handling materials during the daytime, the same robot can start cleaning the floors at night."

Aro's founders will pitch at the Demo Day for Batch 3 of the Alberta Accelerator by 500 on April 18. The accelerator has been helpful, Khan said.

"We didn't know what kind of experiments to do to reach our clients," he said. "It has been instrumental to teach me personally as the CEO of the company, to learn all those tips and techniques … how to listen to the clients, how to basically understand their problem and then form a solution around it."

The company's first trade show — SmartMTX in Red Deer on April 4 and 5 — was a useful way to meet prospective customers.

"It was a great experiment, especially for a company like us," Khan said. "We are not the kind of company that will send an email and someone would like to buy a robot … Our clients do want conversations. They want to get confidence and trust in us."

The trade show was also a chance to demonstrate the kind of collaborations Khan wants to foster. Fellow Edmonton startup Elementiam Materials and Manufacturing was also at SmartMTX. Within 30 minutes, they figured out how to mount Elementiam's 3D scanner on an Aro robot.

A small, rectangular device with a robotic arm on top rests on a cement floor while people visit trade show booths in the background

Aro Robotic Systems demonstrated its technology at the SmartMTX manufacturing technology exposition in Red Deer on April 4 and 5. (Supplied)

"The Aro autonomous robot was able to move around the scanned piece, and Element X was able to rebuild and analyze the corresponding point cloud for damaged identification and repair computation," Elementiam posted with a video of the demonstration. "This process represents the first step of how (additive manufacturing) and autonomous inspection can work together to revolutionize the manufacturing industry."

Khan sees lots of opportunities to work with other startups to develop new applications for their tools and augment the power of Aro. He said he has invited SPI Utilities Solutions, which is also participating in the 500 Global accelerator, to mount its device for cleaning high-voltage power equipment. And he's had conversations with Sarcomere Dynamics about combining its near-human robotic hand with the decidedly non-humanoid Aro.

"We want to build an ecosystem of collaborations," Khan said. "We want to invite other companies to bring in their gadgets, their devices, their technology, to put on our robot."

Aro is aiming to price the robots for 60% to 70% of the cost of a full-time employee, available for purchase upfront or through a monthly subscription. That said, the robots are meant to work among humans, not to replace all of them, Khan added.

"These robots are just going to augment the workforce," he said.

Aro has been self-funded and bootstrapped for the past three years. Now it could use some investment to meet current demand and accelerate growth. The company manufactures the devices in Edmonton, and "there is so much demand that we don't have enough robots to deliver," Khan said.

In the meantime, the company will keep running experiments to understand what customers will pay for. Co-founder and CTO Clayton Coutu is heading to Germany for some important conversations, and the company will try to make the most of the connections made at SmartMTX, including Brian Jean, the provincial minister for jobs, economy, and northern development.

Khan is also CEO of Fourien, a nanotechnology company operating in the biotech space.