Why I work on Forklift Safety

The SIERA.AI S3 Safety System in Action

Forklift Safety Was Not My Dream Job

If you asked me 5 years back what I wanted to work on, I can tell you that forklift safety was not on my mind. I was more concerned with self-driving cars and drones. All that I wanted to build was software for cars that drive themselves with no human supervision or drones that could use cameras and create digital maps of warehouses. Before I wrapped up my Ph.D. and started my company I worked on some pretty challenging computer vision and autonomous navigation problems including in school and at Qualcomm Labs in San Diego. Those were some of the best times spent thinking deeply about autonomy.

So how did I end up working on forklift safety?

In the USA, there are 96,000 forklift accidents every year. Out of which 36,000 cause serious injuries.

When I was starting out my startup journey in 2017 I wanted to work on autonomy challenges. So I teamed up with a business mentor and my Ph.D. adviser to get a small grant from the National Science Foundation I-Corps program (~$50,000). Was this enough to build a billion-dollar startup? NO. What it did give me is the push to go do customer discovery and learn that there several thousand businesses in the world that use these amazing complex machines to move things. While most senior leaders in large enterprises were thinking of forklift automation in the long term, none of them were able to adopt it meaningfully due to the complexity and costs.

All the folks that we spoke to though were worried about the safety of their workforce and there were no readily available smart safety solutions to prevent injuries, reduce damages, and possibly save lives. For me and my co-founder Suhas, this was an AHA moment! Here was a problem that was meaningful and big ($35 Billion annually) and yet there was no real solution out there.

Almost every man made thing you can see around you was once moved by a forklift.

Why is forklift safety important to me?

See, it’s not about forklift safety. What I really care about is solving hard problems. Making a 20,000 LBS vehicle stop itself when the driver isn’t paying attention in a dynamic high traffic warehouse is about as hard a robotics problem gets (can be harder than ADAS for on-road cars). Every day I get to work on a piece of technology that has the potential to save lives. Every day I get to hire great engineers all the way from electrical engineering to computer vision.

Every so often I get to hear stories from folks in the logistics industry about how they almost got forked by one of these dangerous machines in a warehouse. Then I show them a video of our S3 product and they are completely blown away.

That’s why I work on Forklift Safety every day.

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