At your Service: Wendy Roberts and the New Era of Robotics
I don’t claim to be an expert on robots. In fact, until I met Wendy Roberts, founder and CEO of 5 Elements Robotics™, my ideas came almost entirely from the characters I’d seen in movies and on TV.
Say “robot” and I immediately picture the clunky, clattering B-9 from Lost in Space, flailing its mechanical arms and blaring out “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson.”
I think of Rosie, the Jetson’s robotic housekeeper and resident voice of reason; the loyal, courageous, and occasionally comic R2D2 and C3PO or BB8 of Star Wars fame; or a multitude of decidedly unfriendly robots intent on world domination, death or destruction.
Whether friendly or frightening, robots were fictional products of a story teller or screenwriter’s imagination and squarely situated in some distant galaxy or unspecified future time. Or so I thought.
The truth is that like their real-world relatives, drones, self-driving cars, or artificial intelligence (AI) applications, robots are already positioned to significantly impact how we work, play and live.
“Robots aren’t coming.” Roberts points out. “They’re already here.” Her robotics company, headquartered in Wall Township, NJ, designs and produces personal service and consumer robots that are reasonably priced and easily incorporated into everyday life. The popular Budgee® robot assistant, for example, goes where you do (using 5 Elements’ patented Follow Me™ technology) and carries things so you don’t have to.
Roberts, who moved to the Garden State at age 9 and has lived here ever since, considers herself a New Jersey native.
“I went to college here, worked and started businesses and raised my family here,” she says. Her 4 children, all grown, still live in the area. Although Roberts is in the process of moving part of the robotics company to Connecticut and purchasing a house there, she has no plans to give up her home in NJ. “I have deep roots here,” she says.
Roberts is also the founder, president and original CEO of Future Skies®, an advanced technology company specializing in information management, biometrics and robotics for the military, the government and commercial clientele.
Her two companies share space in a red brick building, set back among tall trees in a suburban industrial park. I am buzzed in upon arrival, issued a badge and escorted at all times, first through a work area holding partially assembled robots and spare parts, then into the main office and waiting area, where the color scheme changes from stark black, white and steel to warm beiges and browns. Roberts’ large corner office has the same soothing colors, plus floor- to-ceiling windows that provide a view of the woods and a sense of being surrounded by nature. Still, it is clear that work – and lots of it – is done here.
We settle in at a long table to talk about the robots that 5 Elements makes and the good that robots in general can do, and about why the stereotype of evil, job eliminating robots is short-sighted and largely untrue.
We discuss mentors and trace Roberts’ career path through the mostly male bastions of technology and the military – where she found herself well-accepted and respected – and compare that to her current industry, where she thought being a woman wouldn’t be an issue but has discovered that it is.
Slender and soft-spoken, Roberts comes across as self-confident but never arrogant. She laughs easily and takes every opportunity to commend the people around her, explaining “I’m just here doing what needs to be done.”
LIM: Here you are, having founded two companies, running the newer one, wearing lots of hats and travelling extensively - with your robots - to trade shows, conferences, and corporate meetings all over the globe.
You’re very low key about it. But let’s talk about how you got here. Were you always interested in technology?
WR: When I was young I was more into art than science. I really liked to draw. But I knew I couldn’t make a career out of drawing. At some point, I decided I would go to school to become a psychologist. I thought that sounded like such a fascinating field. I loved reading books by famous psychologists, and research papers. Then I got married and started having to pay bills. I really couldn’t afford to wait until I got a doctorate to earn a decent living, and at the time the career path that was the shortest road to being able to make a good salary was computer science. That’s the path I took. I got a degree [from Monmouth University] and went to work in the technology industry.
LIM: So, I guess you could say you became a techie out of necessity. When did the idea to start your own company show up on your radar?
WR: In 2001, when the company I was working for at the time was purchased by another company and there was a lot of upheaval. The new owners had no military background. They did not share the original company’s philosophy of being available 24/7 to support soldiers in the field. There was nothing I could do to get management to be more responsive. So I said, “I am going to start my own company and I won’t let his go on.”
LIM: Another path taken out of necessity...
WR: I think I have an entrepreneurial spirit, but when I started Future Skies™, I was being pragmatic. I was being practical. I wanted to save jobs.
That was really important to me. If it had just been about money or having my own company, I don’t think I would have done it.
I also was very worried about what was happening to our soldiers overseas. They were in Iraq at the time and they were having issues with the software. I was very concerned that they weren’t being taken care of, that our employees weren’t being taken care of, and I believed I could do something about it.
I elected to start my own company doing software for the military. That was what I had a lot of experience in and what I was doing at the time. I had the contacts, so it was a viable option for me.
LIM: Was it the right choice?
WR: Absolutely. From the moment I started Future Skies™, the company did very well. I got my first contract immediately – as a one-woman company. Within 6 months, I bid on a contract against a very large company and won it with some partners. I was able to hire 10 or 12 people. We just took off from there.
It’s a technology-based company. We have 70 employees at the moment and have done a lot of great things for the military. Still do. We develop communications software, some database software, foundation software – very practical applications that help our soldiers share information and communicate on different systems over potentially incompatible military networks.
I was fortunate to be in a good industry to start a company at that time. Once I’d done it, I became confident that I could do it again.
LIM: As it turned out, you did do it again. What was behind your decision to start 5 Elements Robotics?
WR: In 2011, sequestration was coming and government funding was going to be cut back 10% every year. A huge loss of jobs would be unavoidable. But I wanted to avoid it if I could and decided to look into an industry that was commercially-based, to kind of take what we learned over here in government work and make it work over there in the commercial sector.
LIM: And that led to – robots?
WR: Yes, robots. The timing was right. The components were available. It was possible to price robots to be affordable for the average consumer. And the tech was there so that robots could do something useful and not just be toys or showpieces.
We already knew enough about software to do that part. We hired a robotics engineer who knew about hardware and started investing a lot of our internal R&D funds. We focused on coming up with one particular robot that did something people would want to use it for and that would cost under $1,500. And we did.
After considering 50 robot ideas and narrowing them down based on complexity, how long it would take to complete, marketability and cost, we ended up with the idea for a robot that followed you and carried your things. And that was Budgee®.
LIM: Tell me about your first robot, Budgee®.
WR: When we rolled it out, Budgee® was priced at $1,399. We brought it to a trade show for the first time in 2013, so the world was able to see it. By the end of 2015, we were shipping it.
It weighs under 20 pounds. You can pick it up, fold it up, put it in the back of the car and drive it places; then take it out, unfold it and have it follow you around and carry all your stuff. It has become pretty popular, particularly with people who are disabled or elderly. But also with people from all walks of life.
Handymen use it to carry the tools they need to fix things. Lawyers with a lot of documents to carry use it. So do people living in cities who go places like the grocery store or to do laundry on foot or by subway.
LIM: What makes it unique?
WR: We do hold a patent on it, on the “follow” technology. When it first came out, there were no other robots like it on the market. In fact, there were only a few companies like ours and none of them were making a robot that the average person could afford. Companies were making robots that cost $40,000 to $150,000 – prices that a research institution could afford or a university or the government, but not your average person.
LIM: Are there other personal service robots in the works?
WR: Yes, all growing out of Budgee®. We put a camera on top of its head to make the NannyBot. It’s a robot that can help you watch your kids. Once you activate it using an app on your phone, you can see what your kids are doing – even if they move from room to room. You put the transceiver on your child, and the robot will follow, streaming audio or video to your phone or your computer. You can be in one room working or in the kitchen and, because the robot is with your kids, you can see what’s happening with them. You can also talk to them, like “Hey, I see you. Get off your brother. Let him breathe ...” or just “Come down to dinner.”
We equipped Budgee® with a tablet to create our telepresence robot, the VirtualRep, coming out this summer. There are quite a few telepresence robots on the market, but at about 1/3 the price of next higher model, this one is much less expensive than most others. With it, you can virtually check in at the office when you aren’t able to physically be there. Just log in to the robot and it walks around, talks to people, holds meetings. People see your face; you see theirs.
At conferences, organizers can set up a suite of them, and people can log into the robot from Africa, Australia, anywhere they are. They’re able to participate in the conference without travelling to it.
Doctors are starting to use them. When patients are discharged following surgery, for instance, they take a robot home with them. Their doctor can log in to the robot and see how the patient is doing, talk with them, take their blood pressure, run tests and act quickly to remedy problems. Potentially, this may limit the number of times the patient might have to go back into hospital.
LIM: So, 5 Elements is doing well...
WR: We’re not out of the red yet. Otherwise we’d have a lot more employees (laughs). Work-wise we could support at least 20 employees, but right now we have 5 and we’re all having to do a lot of different jobs.
When we have a surge, we grab coders or testers from Future Skies. We borrow whoever we need to do whatever we know we can’t go out and hire new employees to do.
5 Elements has distributors throughout the world. We’re in about 14 or 15 countries. Most sales continue to come directly through our website, 5elementsrobotics.com, but also through businesses that want robots to fulfill a specific function in their company or industry. That’s where we get into a lot of customization, because each business wants something a little unique.
LIM: How does that work? What happens when a business contacts you?
WR: Because we have this generic-type robot that can be customized for pretty much any business, we get a lot of calls from a lot of businesses that say, “Yes, I need a robot for this” or “I bet a robot could do that; am I right?” and we work with them. We have the basic robot; then we develop software to go on top of it, and we do it quickly. We have an amazingly fast turnaround for this industry. We can get people a prototype usually within 3-6 months. It depends on complexity, but within a year we can be in production.
LIM: I know you can’t go into detail or name actual business customers, but can you give an example of the kinds of robots you provide for them?
WR: For retailers, we’ve developed DASH, a retail robotic shopping cart. Customers come to the store and find a suite of DASH robot/carts there. They’re able to transfer their shopping list to the robot or do a search of items from that store. DASH locates items on the list. The customer just follows the robot to each of the items, takes it off the shelf, scans it and puts it in the cart. DASH keeps a running total of what the customer puts in, and when their shopping is done, they pay DASH with a credit card or electronically using a smart phone or watch. Then DASH follows them to their car, waits while they unload, and takes itself back into the store.
You should start seeing them by the end of 2017.
LIM: Everything you’ve described so far sounds very benign and clearly beneficial. You’re talking about things most people would be more than happy to have a robot around to do.
WR: I think we’re going to see personal service robots come to be viewed as members of the family. Anyone who’s already bought one certainly feels that way. We hear from people who dress their robot in clothes. People send pictures of robots in outfits they put together for them. Some people give them girls’ names and insist they’re female. To others, they’re guys. I talk to them, especially when we’re on the road. It’s not really a conversation, of course. They can say things to you because that’s how they’re programmed. But they don’t understand what you say to them – at least not at this stage
LIM: That’s quite a contrast to the negative chatter about robots you see online or hear in news stories. People seem really concerned about robots taking their jobs, for example.
WR: Robots seem to inspire fear, more so in America than in other countries. In Asian countries, for example, people are very excited about robots. They can’t wait to have one. But here in the US and in Europe, there’s this suspicion, this sense that they are a bad thing. Even reputable media outlets will do stories on robots taking our jobs, portraying them in an awful light.
That’s very shortsighted for a number of reasons. First, look at the jobs robots are taking. They take the repetitive jobs, the boring jobs, the mindless jobs, the jobs that don’t require a lot of brain power or creativity.
These are the things robots do best. They are things that you can actually get a robot to do cheaper, longer, and more accurately than a human. We think robots are so smart, but they are only as smart as the people who program them, and there is a limitation to what they can and cannot do. They are not taking the “let me go design a robot” job. That’s not a job they do. They’re not taking writer jobs or architect jobs or management jobs.
A lot of the time the jobs robots are good at aren’t particularly healthy for humans to be doing in the first place. They may be physically hazardous.
Or mentally or emotionally detrimental because those jobs are not exercising human brains or human potential.
LIM: But what happens to the people whose jobs are lost to robots?
WR: Having a robot come in and take over a job doesn’t make the people who used to do that job obsolete.
Robots come with a giant “tail.” They bring other jobs with them. They don’t make themselves. Making them involves assembly jobs, quality assurance jobs, programming, testing. Just like any other device they need tech support, maintenance, repairs. There’s a demand for phone support, technical writing, instructional video production, sales, marketing, installation.
The robotics industry needs all of this stuff. And many of those jobs can be done by people of any age, any gender, any background and with no more than a high school education.
With certain work, like testing or quality assurance, we’ve found that you can take factory workers and put them straight into those jobs. No, it’s not an exact match. Yes, there’s a transition and we have to train them. But robots are new. Nobody is coming to us with experience. We have to train everybody anyway.
LIM: Is that enough?
WR: The number of robotics jobs available is not going to be equivalent to the numbers lost to robots – not initially. It will take a little time for the industry to grow and get its legs. Once the legs are there and you’ve got robots shipping out regularly, you’re going to find that there’s a crazy amount of employment becoming available; a crazy number of testing, QA, assembly, instruction, and other work needed.
I see this starting already in Connecticut, where the testing, warehousing and assembly portions of 5 Elements will be moving. I will be bringing one person with me who already has the necessary knowledge and skill and can train others. The rest of the jobs will be locally sourced.
The whole town is happy about that. I’ve never, ever had a place where I’ve gone to open an office and received such an incredible reception.
They’re looking to bring jobs into the area and we will be offering training in technical skills.
LIM: What happens to the New Jersey operation?
WR: Programming, R&D, and other high-tech activities will continue in New Jersey, and of course, Future Skies will be staying here. The technology is here; the people who do the research end of it, the people who design the robots, people with degrees and the experience we look for. They’re generally difficult to find. But here in New Jersey, you can find them. Between telecom, Wall Street and Fort Monmouth having been here for so long, we’re really in a technology hub. We’re really fortunate that way.
LIM: Clearly, you’re very passionate about your work, not only with robotics at 5 Elements, but also with the technology work being done at Future Skies, and before that at Fort Monmouth. Who inspired you?
WR: My mother has been a powerful force in that way. I had two sisters so she raised three girls, and she said to all of us, “Never, never think that you’re going to live on your husband’s money. You have to have a career. So, you can just plan on going to college. Just plan on it.”
My mother said that at a time when it wasn’t necessarily expected for women to go to school or to have a career, but it was expected of me. I really believe this put the idea in my head that a woman could do anything.
Anything. Eventually I just assumed that I didn’t have to be held back by anything; that any job a man has, I can have as well.
My mother still inspires me. At one time in my career, I thought I’d just stick with it until I made enough money and be done with it. I’d go to an island, travel, have fun, garden, whatever. But then my mother started her own company at the age of 65 and is still working at the age she’s at now, which I’m not going to mention because she’d be really upset with me. She has shown me that age should not be a barrier; that the way to continue being vibrant and connected and in the game is to be in the game and not to feel, “Oh I am too old and I have to step out now.”
LIM: What about professionally? Did you have someone who influenced how you work? A mentor or role model?
WR: That would be General Steven Boutelle. When I first met him, he was a colonel, and we were trying to do something that had never been done in the army, which was to have different systems share data across networks. We were very successful. Over time we continued to work together.
He used to make late night visits to the tech area. If he would come to see me, he would say, “Oh what are you working on?” and I’d tell him.
Then he’d say, “You know this other company tells me this or my advisors tell me that and they want me to go this route. What do you think?” And I would tell him, and if he asked, I would write it up for him.
He knew he didn’t understand the technology, but he also knew that what he was being told was baloney. So, he talked to the people on the lower rungs to be able to really put the situation in a different perspective and come back with a better decision. I have a world of respect for him because he always made sure he got his answers from more than one source and talked to people from all areas and any rung on the ladder.
LIM: Have you carried on this practice?
WR: Oh, yes. Not as much of late because I’m wearing so many hats, but when I started Future Skies I was determined to model my management style after General Boutelle’s. By going to people’s offices and talking to them, I found out a lot of things I would not have known otherwise – including that techies, software developers in particular, are quiet sorts and really get freaked out when boss walks in and wants to chit chat (laughs).
LIM: How often are you the only woman in the room? What has it been like to be a woman and especially a female CEO in a male-dominated industry?
WR: You know, early on, there weren’t a lot of women around, particularly because I was working in technology and with the army. At that time – and we’re going back quite a few years – women weren’t necessarily accepted in that environment, but I found I was very accepted. I held my own, wasn’t a pushover. I knew my stuff, and they respected that. I never felt like they were looking down on me. I was a relatively young woman and they were old army colonels, generals, yet I was completely accepted in that environment.
So then, I come away from that and decide I’m going to do robots. It’s a progressive field, right? People will be open-minded, accepting; not at all biased because I’m a woman – Wow, was I in for a big awakening, because there’s this stereotype that hadn’t occurred to me. It really hadn’t dawned on me that in the robotics field people expect to deal with a young guy who works out of his garage and wears jeans, a beat-up t-shirt and a ball cap or long hair. They’re expecting to see this rebel kind of guy, and I’m not that. I’m on the other end of the spectrum.
Buyers, companies, the media, venture capitalists, they all want that young guy. And as a result, I’ve encountered a huge amount of discrimination in this field.
On the government side, I was shocked that the military was so open, but in what you would think would be a very progressive field, I’m finding people are close-minded.
When you look at studies, people in general believe men are smarter than women and also that men know technology better than women. So, I get that people might treat me as if that were true. And by the way, I’m not saying that the guys who work with me aren’t more technically competent than me. Right now, they are, without a doubt. But who founded the company? Who is doing the business part?
For trade shows like CES that we go to every year, I generally bring one of the tech guys with me.
We’ll both be there in the booth with the robots, and everyone will go straight to the guy. People who have questions, they want to talk to him. Young people, old, men, women, you name it, everyone.
And he’ll say, “No. no. She’s the CEO, the founder. You need to talk to her.” And they’re like “Oh, okay. Really? Her? That woman?”
They seem disappointed. Or incredulous. It’s ridiculous. One group reacted to hearing that I was the CEO by asking what my husband does. What does that have to do with anything? If they were there to talk to me about whether we can do business together, why do they need to know what my husband does?
LIM: Do you think attitudes will change when we start seeing more women in technology jobs? I know STEM programs are doing great things to help girls be more involved with science, technology, engineering and math. I’d hate to think that all that effort would only be preparing women to come into a setting or situation where they’re thought of as not as smart as guys.
WR: STEM programs are awesome. I’m so glad they’re available, and that they’re starting younger, much younger. I‘ve gone to talk to girls in local STEM programs. At some of their schools, I bring the robots, give demos and talk about women in the field in a way I hope will inspire them to choose robotics as a career path.
Right now, it may not be a female-friendly field, but there are females in it. In fact, quite a few tech CEOs are women.
Last summer, at a tech show put on by Bloomberg, I was asked to participate on a panel of five robot company CEOs, and when I got out on the stage I was surprised to find that every one of the CEOs was a woman. It wasn’t intentional; they didn’t set out to have an all-woman show, that’s just how it worked out. I take it as a positive sign.
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