For years, I’ve been pushing for better snow removal in Buffalo, especially our sidewalks. A lot of ideas have come and gone, from heated sidewalks to on-demand snow shoveling apps to Snow Zones to municipal snow shoveling. But not much ever panned out, leaving many Buffalonians out in the cold.
As the snow falls heavily for the first time this season, it’s the perfect day to discuss Snowbotix – an autonomous snow removal company that recently relocated its headquarters to Buffalo.
I spoke with Snowbotix founder Dr. Sasi Prabhakaran this morning, who happened to be in India, where it was evening time for him.
I had been looking forward to speaking with Dr. Prabhakaran for quite some time, but the snow just wasn’t falling in Buffalo… yet. With a snowstorm on the way, we decided that it was the perfect time to chat.
“Is it really finally snowing there?” asked Dr. Prabhakaran. “That’s amazing! My crew should be very happy. We’ve been planning for this for some time – last summer we wanted to test it out, but we needed snow. We have one prototype that we are trying to validate. We want to demonstrate that the system can handle the snow while it’s snowing. The autonomous machine is 800 pounds, so it is able to clear as much as 6 to 8 feet of snow.”
Being curious about who the target customer is for the Snowbotix robot, Dr. Prabhakaran told me that he is currently in talks with airports, universities, hospitals, etc. These are the places with many slip and falls, he said.
“I’m originally from the southern part of India,” said Dr. Prabhakaran. “I never saw snow until I came to the US for a PHD in robotics. And that was in California. I taught for a year at Syracuse University, and that’s when I first encountered real snow. It was super fascinating at first. Then I realized how hard it was to navigate the city. Even walking around the campus was difficult. A friend of mine slipped on a sidewalk and ended up in the hospital. So I went to the City and asked why they were not clearing snow from the sidewalks. They told me that streets were their priority, not sidewalks. That was not OK with me. Not everyone can afford a car.
“I would see people walking in the streets because it was not safe to walk on the sidewalks. It was then that I thought, ‘Why can’t we build an autonomous system for snow removal?’ I had recently started a company Akrobotix (GENIUS NY ’17) that was awarded a grant – National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) – for Unmanned Systems Operations. I ended up working with Launch NY for fifteen months. We started to do customer discovery – we went to residents, property managers, and anyone else who was facing problems with the snow. We interviewed them to validate the problem…. and found that there was a big, big problem. I knew that we had the solution. That’s how we started Snowbotix.”
The way that Snowbotix will work is pretty much twofold. Places like airports will own and operate their own systems. They will be installed permanently. In the summer, the robots will have broom attachments and will keep the sidewalks clean. In the winter, they will remove the snow.
“Consider it like a Roomba for commercial snow removal,” Dr. Prabhakaran. “The robot will go back to its docking station to recharge itself. It will operate around the clock. I’ve already had a Buffalo-based property company contact me about having one of the robots utilized for security patrol. They are very versatile.”
The other way that Snowbotix can be utilized is to have the robots clear snow from neighborhood sidewalks – commercial and residential. Similar to how lawn care services have workers show up to mow lawns with professional mowers, these same types of service providers would purchase the snow removal robots. Residents and businesses owners would sign up for the snow removal services, upon which time the robots would be dropped off to clear the sidewalks of snow. Just like when a snowplow shows up to clear driveways when it snows, the robots would handle the sidewalks. This would especially be handy for block clubs that could sign up to have a robot clear sidewalks along entire blocks.
I asked Dr. Prabhakaran what prompted his decision to relocate Snowbotix, to be headquartered in Buffalo. “When you think about snow, Buffalo is a more happening place,” he answered [laughing]. “I wanted to live as close to Toronto as possible, and Buffalo is centrally located to many of the cities that we want to work in, such as Chicago, Albany, and Rochester. It’s an ideal city for us to expand throughout North America.”
Currently, Dr. Prabhakaran and his team are busy recruiting talented engineers to work at Robotix. He told me that since he’s new to Buffalo, he’s really hoping to tap into the local talent pool, but he also plans on recruiting people to move here to work at the company. His hope is to find a tech community in Buffalo that can help him to source his employment needs. He also feels that it’s time that Buffalo project a more positive image out to other cities around the country. There’s so much happening here that people just don’t know about. The tech community needs to work together to ensure that this city is as enticing as possible. There is a relatively healthy tech community in Buffalo – it’s just that people who are being recruited to work in Buffalo might not be aware of it.
As people are embracing tech in Buffalo more and more, they also need to embrace winter. That said, people will embrace winter if they are not afraid of walking on slippery sidewalks to get to work, or to the store. The city of Buffalo is a walking community. But as we are all well aware, getting around town in the wintertime can be hazardous. It doesn’t have to be though. We’re talking about a serious quality of life issue. That’s why Snowbotix is here to help.
“Humans have better things to do than shoveling,” said Dr. Prabhakaran. “Let them do the creative work.”
An all electric, all terrain robot for commercial snow and ice management
- Cost-effective, consistent, continuous, on-demand operation
- Re-configurable attachments (plow, broom, mower, etc.)
- Safe and reliable autonomous and teleoperation under any weather condition
- Social-aware navigation with autonomous collision avoidance & failsafe
- Auto-return to dock for recharging
- Cloud based robot management tool for planning, real-time monitoring
Get connected: snowbotix.com