Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

By Vicky Dorvee

Local SnowBot business is heating up


August 31, 2018

Courtesy photo

Left Hand Robotics’ snow clearing machine, the SnowBot, was invented by Niwotians Terry Olkin and Mike Ott. After two years in development, SnowBots will be rolled out into production later this year.

Terry Olkin and Mike Ott, founders of Left Hand Robotics (LHR), are bringing the SnowBot to market and the name says it all. Unlike a human, this autonomous snow clearer doesn’t think twice about heading into the dark, frigid night to work tirelessly.

“The genesis of the company is that I never had to deal with snow until I moved to Colorado,” Olkin said. “When I first moved here, I thought, yeah, I’ll get a snow remover and do my driveway. But after a short period of time, I realized this was no fun at all.”

He tried hiring a local company, but residential accounts were low priority. Knowing there was a better way, he asked Ott if he could design a robot to remove snow. Ott said of course.

Starting in 2016, they knew they were onto something when the they attended a snow removal trade show run by the Snow and Ice Management Association. But the residential trajectory of the robot changed when they learned the industry had a commercial sector labor crisis.

“Labor is the number one issue. The snow removal industry just cannot get people to show up and do the work,” Olkin said. “It’s not just the workers who shovel. We had one guy tell us he can’t hire enough people to even use his stand-on machines.

With the current construction boom, people who might work part-time shoveling snow, can make better money working construction. “And they definitely don’t want to work at one in the morning when it’s 20 degrees out,” Olkin said.

An hour of a SnowBot’s run time is the equivalent of 14 shovelers, and the machine’s continued sweeping and simultaneous de-icing application prevents build-up. The sensor driven, gas powered, hydraulic vehicle is unmanned, but fully monitored through the cloud.

The SnowBot interfaces with a computer and a mobile app, allowing operators to be offsite. The machine is equipped with LIDAR and RADAR sensors to detect obstacles while running its pre-programmed route. If a SnowBot senses an impediment, it will pause and send operators and LHR real-time notifications so they can redirect the machine. “Ultimately, we want it to make decisions without contacting people,” Olkin said.

The robot is designed to clear sidewalks and bike paths. While the machine’s parts aren’t revolutionary, LHR’s software is groundbreaking, making it the first self-driving snow removal machine on the market.

The company website states the cost of the SnowBot (starting at $32,995) is offset by payroll and insurance savings. There’s a return on investment calculator to verify that assertion.

CEO Olkin and CTO Ott named their company after the place they call home, Niwot, which means “left hand” in Arapaho. The Olkin family has lived in Niwot since 2004 and the Ott family since 2013.

Olkin’s passion is writing software, which he has done since he was eight. He’s had to do everything including bookkeeping, media interaction, employee hiring, marketing, and investor relations.

At LHR, Ott said, “I seem to spend most of my time either working with vendors trying to get parts and components for our machines or with customers trying to understand their needs and helping them understand how our solution can help their businesses.”

LHR is prepared to start production thanks to a recent influx of $2 million. Heroic Ventures, a venture capital group headed by Matt Robinson, led the round with a $1 million investment. Additional stakeholders infused another $1 million. These funds have allowed the company to become debt free, hire more employees, and start acquiring the parts they need to begin assembly. Now up to 10 full-time employees, the company will deliver its first orders by the end of this year.

The basic SnowBot kit comes with a 46-inch wide rotating brush, a path collection device, and a GPS station used to program each robot’s route. The company also offers additional GPS stations and machine attachments, such as deicing fluid and salt dispensers.

The company has been queueing up interested customers by accepting reservations with a $1,000 deposit.

Initially assembly will be done at their offices in Longmont, but will eventually be moved to a larger space nearby.

Science and engineering run in both Olkin’s and Ott’s families. Olkin’s son Jake, a student at Carnegie Mellon, was critical in writing the SnowBot’s navigational code. Ott’s son Clint is LHR’s Director of Engineering.

Ott and Olkin met at Up-A-Creek Robotics, where they are both mentors. Ott said, “This program is an incredible opportunity for young people in the area to get hands-on experience in a variety of STEM topics working alongside talented industry professionals. The experience our students gain is far beyond what is available to them in school. We have employed a number of Up-A-Creek team members and alumni as interns at Left Hand Robotics and we have a couple of full-time engineers who were members when they were in high school.”

When asked about the future of LHR’s technology, Olkin said there will be more computer vision and decision making advances and work o


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