CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
November 11, 2019
Forward Thinking

AT&T provides 5G data network for rolling retail robots

Badger Technologies says wireless bandwidth and security help its robots gather inventory data from store aisles.

Wireless network provider AT&T is teaming with a robotics firm to support ultra-high bandwidth 5G data nodes for the autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that are increasingly seen wandering the aisles of sporting goods stores and supermarkets.

The combination of technologies could "accelerate retail automation" by allowing the wandering robots to share large amounts of in-store data and images without overloading a store's existing Wi-Fi network, the companies said. To demonstrate that ability, the Dallas-based telecommunications giant will work with Badger Technologies, a division of the electronics design and product management company Jabil Circuit Inc. 

Nicholasville, Ky.-based Badger makes robots designed to wander brick and mortar stores, helping retailers identify out-of-stock, mispriced, or misplaced inventory as well as store hazards. An increasing number of retailers have launched trials of similar platforms in recent months, including Bossa Nova's shop-floor robot and Simbe Robotics Inc.'s "Tally" bot.

These rolling robots, or "advanced mobile data collection systems," can improve retailers' operational efficiencies and customer experiences, but they rely on powerful networks that allow them to share large amounts of data. To better enable such uninterrupted network connectivity, the AT&T Foundry innovation lab is testing 5G connectivity with Badger Technologies' robots in a multi-access edge computing (MEC) environment.

5G is the fifth generation of mobile, wireless networking, distinguished from the current 3G and 4G networks used for today's smartphones by offering faster, more reliable data pipelines. According to 5G providers like Qualcomm, that additional speed and security is designed to enable internet of things (IoT) connections to machines and devices, in addition to consumers' sharing basic texts and photos.

AT&T says its goal in the Badger project is to demonstrate how 5G using millimeter wave spectrum and edge computing could provide retailers with the lower latency and high throughput required to process and share vast amounts of data while running concurrently with other in-store network applications.

"5G is an important next step to helping ensure shared visibility across critical inventory, [point of sale], and operational systems," Badger CEO Tim Rowland said in a release. "Working with AT&T enables us to better support our retail customers by delivering information faster to increase store efficiencies, improve customer service, and boost profits."

AT&T says its multi-access edge computing (MEC) solutions could also help Badger Technologies increase hyper-local data processing by providing a more private network connection than typically associated with in-store Wi-Fi. This gives Badger Technologies more control over what data travels beyond the walls of the store and what data stays onsite, which addresses mounting privacy and security concerns among retailers.

"In-building cellular solutions, including 5G and edge computing, are critical drivers of digital transformation for retailers," Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer, AT&T Business, said in a release. "These technologies will eventually equip robots with both the compute power and lower latency needed to increase revenue, improve the in-store experience, and elevate employees to better assist customers. Badger Technologies' robots can help retailers make sure they have products in stock and in the right place, increasing customer satisfaction."

Ben Ames is Editor at Large and a Senior Editor at Supply Chain Quarterly’s sister publication, DC Velocity.

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