A Spotlight on a Company
Dafna Gold Malchior
Friendly Robotics – The neighbor’s grass is better groomed
An interview with Friendly Robotics CEO, Udi Peless
Friendly Robotics, Israeli manufacturer of lawn mowing robots, a winner of the outstanding exporter prize for 2013, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The annual growth of this market is estimated at 30%, and the future is looking green. And nicely groomed.
Udi, tell us about Friendly Robotics
“Friendly Robotics, located in Pardessia in the heart of the flourishing Sharon region of northern central Israel is a household robotics company, a branch of robotics dedicated to the development of robots that carry out household maintenance tasks such as cleaning and gardening, to free up valuable time for homeowners. With the robot at work, the owners can spend the time doing things of higher priority. We’re called “friendly”
because it’s important to us that our products perform superiorly but also provide a fun, user-friendly experience. Robomow, our flagship product, is a robotic lawnmower manufactured in 16 different designs, spanning a wide range of sizes and specifications such that they suit a vast range of lawns, from small to large gardens of 3,000 sq. meters. We assemble the products here at our Pardessia plant and export overseas. We purchase the parts all over the world, some locally from Israel, some from China – each according to need.
Our team, like the discipline of robotics, is diverse and complex. Our development team includes software engineers alongside electrical and mechanical engineers. For the most part, at the time they join us, these engineers don’t have a background in robotics, rather they tend to have a classical engineering background in their particular field (electrical/mechanical/software engineering) and then we provide on the job training in robotics. Alongside our development team, our management is also situated in Pardessia. Our sales department is managed from Belgium, where it oversees the European market. Our team now numbers close to 100 employees in total and our annual sales reach a few dozens million dollars. We’re the number 2 lawn mowing robotics company in the world.”
How did you begin?
“Together with my partner, Shai Abramson, we established the company 20 years ago, with the vision of household robotics right from the start. We contemplated which product to start with, chose lawn mowing and were very pleased with the results. We both have engineering backgrounds, though more in computers and electronics than mechanical engineering. At the beginning of my career, I worked in the defense industry, specializing in navigation and control systems. Some of the ideas came from that field and some originated more from the marketing world. Another catalyst was the fact that I had a garden and I didn’t feel like mowing the lawn on a daily basis. This too drove me to think of other solutions.
Over the years we developed a robotic vacuum cleaner, in collaboration with Hoover, within the same category of household robotics. But when Hoover went bankrupt mid-project, a short time after the product reached the market – it was discontinued. I believe we’ll pursue this product again in the future”.
What is your market?
“Western Europe is our main market. Affluent countries with plentiful rain and therefore lots of grassy lawns: Germany, The Netherlands, France, The UK, Scandinavia – countries with significant populations that have available income to spend on garden cultivation, able and willing to pay to rid themselves from this kind of task. These characteristics apply to a great extent to the US, but there this market is still in its infancy. In Israel we sell several hundred units a year, a nice market from our point of view but not something that can sustain a large company.”
What trends do you currently see in household robotics?
“There is consistent growth which we foresee will continue and even increase. In the coming decade, I believe there will be 2-4 robots in every home, just like today’s computers (including smartphones, tablets and Ipads). The estimated growth rate of lawn mowing robots is 30% each year, meaning it doubles every three years. The growth rate is similar in other household robotics branches such as vacuuming and pool cleaning. Products cost about one thousand dollars or less for small gardens, nothing outrageous. Those who can afford it are happy to receive the leisure time with which to do other things and so the products become popular. People try one household robot, for example a vacuum cleaning/floor washing robot, it becomes popular and it whets people’s appetite for more. They begin to seek additional robots to carry out additional tasks. We’re also seeing attempts to introduce household robotics into new categories. One of the innovations in recent years is the window cleaning household robot. Ever since it was first launched 2-3 years ago it’s been gaining momentum. I believe we’ll see additional home robotic applications and, as I said, 2-4 robots in most homes”.
How important is innovation in this field?
“Innovation is very important! In some aspects, the products are still very elementary. There is much potential for improved performance and price and there’s certainly more and more competition. In lawn mowing robotics, for example, there are 15 competitors in Europe alone! Almost every serious manufacturer of garden equipment tries his hand at developing a lawn mowing robot. In order to compete successfully in a market of this nature, one must be innovative and very quick in producing solutions.”
What robotic technology facilitates these innovations?
“The new robots decide when to go out and mow the lawn. They recharge and set off the next time on their own, unless the homeowner sets up the operation time using an app to control the robot operation. The robot is autonomous. It “lives” in the recharging station. Consumers simply download the app for free from the Google or Apple app store, for tablets, I-pads or Smartphones. Two operation alternatives are offered: a Bluetooth based interface, suitable for operation from a distance of up to several tens of meters, and the other models have a cellular GSM module, enabling owners to give their robot instructions from the other side of the world! If you are at a conference in New York, you can tell your robot to start mowing in Herzlia … we receive statistics on the scope of clients downloading the app and usage frequency and it seems that they like these options very much.”
How do you prevent someone from stealing the robot?
“The product is encrypted with a code, like an ATM card. If the robot is stolen - the thief won’t succeed in operating it. Furthermore, in the GSM models, the theft is reported directly to the owner’s smartphone as the robot identifies it’s been removed from its yard.”
You focus on one product – lawn mowing robots. Are you considering additional products?
I mentioned the attempt we made to manufacture a robotic vacuum cleaner with Hoover. We avoid manufacturing products that are similar to others in the market. It’s very difficult to compete with well-known existing brands. So we have to identify where our relative advantage lies. When we find such a niche, when it becomes clear that we have something truly unique to offer and it’s an area in which we have an advantage – we won’t hesitate to expand our product line accordingly”.
How significant is product design in this field?
“Product design is becoming more and more central in this type of product. The market is maturing and as such it is becoming much more attuned to aesthetics, form, convenience and user experience. How noisy is it? How much does it weigh? (you may need to carry it from one spot to another). These have become every bit as much of a consideration for consumers as the question of the quality of lawn mowing. They seek a comprehensive positive experience working with it. Accordingly, we’ve invested much more in designing our new generation of products which we launched during 2014 and in which the designers had a significant role and much impact on the end result. The designers, graduates of Bezalel, are from an external firm with whom we’ve been closely collaborating for 15 years.”
What is needed for Israel to realize its immense potential in the field?
“We need a national strategy including allocation of resources to robotics in both academia and industry. Indeed, robotics is a field of tremendous potential and Israel has a good chance of competing successfully in the global market in this field, but to that end adequate resources must be allocated. I enthusiastically support the proposal to establish an Israeli robotics institute. There are already several promising beginnings in the robotic industry in Israel, in our field and in pool cleaning robotics and we need comprehensive national backing and continued development”.
What’s next in household robotics?
“The products currently on the market do not yet know how to collect information, such as mapping the garden or measuring the humidity level and assessing adequate irrigation. In the future, it will be possible to equip the robots with sensors that can carry out such tasks. Additionally, there will be an increase in systems enabling orientation and precise navigation as opposed to the random navigation (albeit through a sophisticated system that ensures they reach every spot) used in current systems . We’re in a great market and strive to be leaders within it.”