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Stokes Robotics – Turning Robots into What their Law Enforcement, Manufacturing and Medical Customers Need

Robert Stokes


Stokes Robotics


Robert Stokes


Interview conducted by:

Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor

CEOCFO Magazine

Published – June 26, 2023


CEOCFO: Mr. Stokes, what is Stokes Robotics?

Mr. Stokes: Stokes Robotics is a division of our parent company Stokes Educational Services. My wife (Lynnette) and I founded the company in 2005. It started as a STEM education company where we developed science, technology, engineering and mathematics materials for schools. In 2010, we started working with a robotics company to provide solutions for schools for robotics engineering curriculum and programming, but that soon morphed into working with universities who were doing research in medical areas. We did some projects with various groups like Boston Children's Hospital using robotics to bring down pain in patients and to increase compliance with pediatric patients.

In 2020, we were approached by Unitree, which manufactures robots. They wanted us to become their North American distributors and secondary developers for their products, and that is when we formed Stokes Robotics since we had gone from just focusing on education to focusing on law enforcement, manufacturing, and a host of different verticals. We are still providing education and training items for our customers, and we also do custom development to make sure they have what they need. We do not manufacture the robots at this point, but we turn the robots into what the customer needs.

CEOCFO: What should people understand about robotics?

Mr. Stokes: Robots are scary to people, and science fiction hasn’t helped when they have robots turn evil and attack us. What people need to understand is robots tend to be just computers on wheels or legs that might have robotic arms or other inputs and outputs to them, but the idea is that with robotics we can take the things you want a computer to do and put it in a mobile platform. We are also able to do things consistently over and over without mistakes because we are just running through a program.

A lot of the time people assume robots are like what they see in the movies. However, they are simply mechanized computers that are primarily used to make people's lives better and safer by protecting people from dangerous situations and making them more efficient.

CEOCFO: Why are so many robots made with legs that look like dogs' legs?

Mr. Stokes: That is a very good question. The designers of quadruped robots do base these on the skeletal shape of dogs. They do this for agility purposes. The bend in the knee makes it so that when something runs into the robot or the robot falls, it can recover and get back up or not fall easily.

When a robot is moving fast and goes to turn, that knee shape helps it keep its balance; and if it is standing still and something bumps it, it makes it easier for it not to fall over. When an athlete gets in an athletic position, the knee is bent and everything is above the knees, and the shoulders are in alignment. They are not sitting straight with their knees locked. That is the reason for the design of the robots.

CEOCFO: When someone comes to you and thinks they have something that will work with a robot, what do you look at and understand that might make the designing process easier or shorter?

Mr. Stokes: One of the things that makes us different is that we do talk to our customers, and we do customization. We focus initially on what they need. A lot of times people come in and say, "Here is the robot I want." We try to start the conversation by asking them what they want the robot to do because somebody might see a robot on TV or something and think that is the one they want and end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they need based on their criteria. We listen to them and hear what kind of tasks they want to do.

We were just in Los Angeles and met with three different police forces including LA S.W.A.T and Hawthorne P.D. We talked with them about how they were going to utilize the robot. They talked about sending it upstairs or in a house where someone might be barricaded in. The police want to see what is going on and talk to the person. So we need two-way communication, high definition video, and they need to be able to control the robot through walls. What they did not need is autonomous mapping, they did not need the robot to go out and map and walk around like a security robot would do because they are not going to be going into the same place over and over.

In talking with them about their specific needs we can tell them maybe we do not need to put the LiDAR on this one or maybe add some of the other components. It is all about assessment and then we work with the technologies that will work the best.

CEOCFO: What type of maintenance might be involved with a robot?

Mr. Stokes: With a mobile robot and especially a legged robot, primarily you are going to have to calibrate it so that it does not drift to the left or right which is a fairly simple process that the end user can do in a few minutes. The thing you always have to be concerned about is a motor burning out or a wire breaking, or if a robot is climbing the stairs and falls you could have a camera get broken or a leg snap.

We recently had a large robot that was going up some stairs, as it slipped through some holes in the stairs and it fell and snapped one of the legs. That is an unusual scenario but when you have a mobile robot the kind of damage that can occur in a fall will be similar to the damage to a vehicle or person in a similar situation.

CEOCFO: You mentioned you do not do the manufacturing; do you work with the manufacturer?

Mr. Stokes: We have manufacturers that we work with who have their own spec robots. We work with Unitree which has a variety of quadruped robots and we work with Direct Drive, which has some wheeled robots. When we get those robots in, we add various sensors to them.

We will sometimes customize it so that if something is manufactured in China, we might move some of the communication in the computer to make sure there is no data that could go back to China with the use of the 5G or 4G system. We are currently working with a customer who wants a US-made robot custom-made by us and we are at the beginning of that process.

Typically, we try not to reinvent the wheel if someone else already has it because the important thing is to make the changes to the robot and add the things to the robot so that we can fill the need.

CEOCFO: We came across Stokes Robotics as you participated in a recent security conference. How do you stand out? Are those conferences typical for you?

Mr. Stokes: We attend a lot of conferences. We attend a lot of education conferences. We were recently at Automate 2023, which is a manufacturing conference for automation. There are a lot of robotics companies there, but they were mostly robotic lines. We were one of the few mobile robotic companies. We also go to security conferences and correction conferences. We work with police departments, prisons, and jails because we can go in and have the robot deal with correction officer shortages by making a single correction officer be able to do the job of two or three. One of the prisons we work with had a shortage of 120 correction officers, so they needed the robots to work with the correction officers so that they could double their productivity. We're always the star of the show, at this point anyway, because people have seen these kinds of robots on TV and the internet and there is still a fascination when people say they have never seen them in live-action before. Even at the recent conference in Detroit there were mostly robotics companies and we drew the crowd because of our variety of robots. People are used to seeing a robot moving around but those tend to have a single purpose they can do. They can follow a single path over and over. The difference in our robots is in so many industries they can do whatever you want them to do. If it is facility security the robot can walk around, looking for issues. In manufacturing, they can perform predictive maintenance. In school security, they can confront intruders.

School security is a big one now because we can put the robots in the schools and we have a curriculum with it but if an intruder comes in, they can send the robot out and say, “Why are you here.” Most of the time the person will say, “I came to see Mr. Jones,” or , "I came to pick up my daughter," and the robot can escort them back to the office. If the security personnel or school officials that are talking and seeing through the robot detect a firearm or hostile intent or even an active shooter, they can immediately send that data feed to every teacher in the school, local law enforcement and all of the security people, then talk to the person. If the person is already an active shooter, they can disorient the person with anything from lasers to smoke to loud music or flashing lights and keep them in place. In Nashville at the recent school shooting the principal went out to confront the intruder and was killed in less than a minute. The police said she saved potentially dozens of lives. With the robots, they will draw that same fire but a person is not having to sacrifice themself.

We can send robots to the school to draw the fire, disorient the person, and hopefully get them to flee, but at least make sure that person is not shooting people. That becomes a critical instance for us. Any amount of distraction time provides time for people to get into a classroom, a secure location, or flee to safety. It is the same concept with the police departments in domestic disturbances. We remember the tragic Breonna Taylor situation in Louisville where her boyfriend shot at a police officer and the police started shooting back and she ended up getting killed. When the police can stay back in safety and send the robot in, if the boyfriend pulls out his gun and shoots the robot, the police are back in safety, they are not getting hit so they have time to think and react more appropriately. Also, thermal cameras can detect other people in the area. Our primary focus is using robots to protect people from dangerous situations and to improve lives.

In manufacturing, we can send the robot in to deal with a gas leak or other situations that are potentially dangerous to humans.  

CEOCFO: Where does cost come into play?

Mr. Stokes: There are budgetary realities, for example, our large dust proof, water proof robot can cost from $100,000 to $200,000. It is great for manufacturing scenarios because they may be saving the cost of three or four salaries. They get a return on investment in less than a year. When there is a shortage of manpower, they have money allocated for salaries, but there are not workers to hire. In these scenarios, cost is not that big of a deal for manufacturers.

If I am dealing with law enforcement or school security, budget issues can become more significant. If a school needs four to six robots, the $100,000 and $200,000 robot is just unrealistic for the budget. We can say that it should not matter because it is protecting the children, but we are working with a district now that has 140 schools. If they were to spend a million dollars per school, that is $140 million. Using the smaller, less expensive robots we can normally equip a school in-between $50,000 and $250,000 depending upon the school size, level of robots they wanted, and the sophistication of the automation.

Those things become very important aspects for law enforcement, manufacturing, and especially schools as well as government agencies. It is harder for the robot to pay for itself when it is not able to replace an existing cost; "all" it is doing is saving lives and protecting people. However, lives and protection have substantial value.

CEOCFO: You mentioned medical applications, would you give us an example that might surprise our readers?

Mr. Stokes: There was a social robot called NAO that we worked with ten years ago. It was a simple toy-sized humanoid robot. The research we did found that when we put it into hospitals with pediatric patients, it would decrease pain levels through distracting the patient. When patients were getting cancer treatment, they would tense up because it was painful. That tensing up caused the treatment to be more painful. The robot was able to talk to them and appear to empathize with them which was helpful.

The robots have worked very well with patients and students with autism. We have had young kids with autism who were non-communicative and had a very hard time expressing emotion properly to their parents or teachers. The robot was non-threatening to them because it did not make facial expressions. They could ask the robot the same questions many times and the robot was not going to get impatient or appear to get a headache. This comforted the students. However, when dealing with a person, the students would start to pick up on those expressions and react negatively.

We had a fourth-grade student with one of the robotic dogs. The robot went out into the gym and interacted with the student and they did some exercises together. At the end, the little fourth grader had gone up and hugged and kissed the robot and then hugged the teacher. This didn't seem unusual until afterward when the teacher said that the student had never hugged anyone in the school. The fact that the robot can be non-threatening to some people and cause them to get over some of their fears and social anxieties, is something that surprised many.

CEOCFO: Why pay attention to Stokes Robotics?

Mr. Stokes: I think the thing that differentiates us is there are a lot of companies out there that are just building robots to say here is the cool new robot, but where we are different is we are focused on figuring out where the needs are and solving the specific problems, rather than focus on creating the coolest new robot. That seems to be an area of need that is not being met.

We run the full gamut of mobile robotics from wheeled robots to quadruped robots to biped robots. We just figure out what the customer needs. We then implement a solution to meet those needs, whether it is to protect people or to increase efficiency. I think that is where we are different.

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“Our primary focus is using robots to protect people from dangerous situations and to improve lives.”
Robert Stokes