Rise of the Snow Machines: AI Startup’s Robots Can Lay Waste to Snow


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Florida native Terry Olkin, accustomed to warm weather, had a problem with his new home of Colorado: Snow blocked the driveway.

“I couldn’t get my car out of the driveway to get to work — I thought, ‘Why aren’t there robots yet to do this?’” Olkin said.

The moment led the busy entrepreneur and a colleague, Mike Ott, to start Left Hand Robotics for clearing snow with autonomous maintenance machines. Olkin and Ott — CEO and CTO, respectively, of the Longmont, Colorado-based company — also work together in a nonprofit that teaches robotics for school-age children.

Founded in 2016, Left Hand Robotics has been running pilot tests for the past year with customers such as the city of Longmont and Michigan State University.

The company recently scooped up $3.6 million in funding and began shipping its commercial machine, which clears snow and can trim grass. It’s also a member of the NVIDIA Inception program, which helps startups scale faster.

“NVIDIA Inception has allowed us to more easily access resources such as the Jetson and, most importantly, the community and NVIDIA engineers who can quickly answer questions and point us in the right direction when we come across an issue or need guidance,” said Olkin.

Tractor with a Vision

The Left Hand Robotics machine, dubbed RT-1000, has cameras, lidar and radar to help it see.

While radar and lidar help the machine detect people and objects for safety, the radar is there for seeing through snow to detect objects in the robot’s way.

Data from the robot’s six cameras, lidar and radar sensors are processed by the compact supercomputing power of the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 module.

The maintenance machines also run GPS capable of RTK, or real-time kinematics, which can provide mapping within a centimeter of accuracy.

Using the company’s path collection tool — it’s a device to collect coordinates on wheels —  customers can push it along to define the robot’s job path. That information gets compiled into a program and downloaded onto the robot for navigation at the time it’s ready to perform assigned tasks.

Shoveling In Interest

The city of Longmont this year deployed Left Hand Robotics machines in tests for clearing snow from sidewalks and greenways. The robot mowers have also been used there over the summer for mowing parks and softball fields.

Michigan State University has done testing in the winter on its golf course as well, as for using it to mow fields.

In Canada, customers who need to keep pathways cleared of snow are using it as well.

Left Hand Robotics sells the autonomous maintenance machines, and then customers pay an annual software subscription based on the level of support, features and usage.

“We’re just getting started here and getting customers ramping up. We’re the only robot out there that can do these kinds of multiple tasks,” said Olkin.

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