Security robots patrolling hallways may seem like the stuff of science fiction but Sean Baghai says he’s on the cusp of making it a reality today.
Baghai, owner and operator of Baghai Digital based in Toronto, has been following the trend of guard replacement in condominium residential buildings. Typically, condo properties are looking to replace or augment guards with some sort of monitored CCTV solution, but Baghai is prepared to go a step further: robots.
Sean Baghai’s main market is condo buildings in the Toronto area, as well as higher income residences in well-to-do neighbourhoods like Forest Hill and the Bridle Path. He mainly deals in alarms, but also designs and installs complete systems including elements of access control, CCTV, intercoms, fire systems “and basically everything in between.”
His exposure to the condo market has made him think differently about guards and their function.
“We realized that security guards are not really security guards,” he says. “They’re so distracted because of questions. They act as a concierge service. They need some assistance and there’s no money in the budget for an extra guard.”
This kernel of an idea developed into the ASTR (Autonomous Security Terminal Robot) — a device made up of standard off-the-shelf security technology and software that can do the patrol work of a guard when he’s otherwise engaged.
“We decided that we would make this rover that would assist the guard, so when he’s at his desk, there’s eyes and ears around that he can control and all that information gets back to the front desk.”
The robot will be equipped with smoke detectors, break-glass detectors, a PTZ camera — the basics it needs to detect a problem and alert a human. “If it sensed smoke or flooding, it could report this to the front desk.”
Naturally, the ASTR would have some limitations, chief among those being mobility. Robots that can climb stairs are rare and prohibitively expensive today. In order to move between floors, the ASTR would require integration with elevator access control. That’s a future possibility — Baghai says he’s in talks with an elevator company to make it happen — but right now, the ASTR’s best application is in the parking garage, which is realistically where the majority of condo crime happens anyway.
Baghai says that $1,500 a month is a reasonable charge for such a service. “It’s really peanuts considering the level of security it would provide. There’s really no way you could get a guard for $1,500 a month. People are charging $1,500 a month for remote monitoring.”
Baghai says he is close to a marketable solution — the final ASTR prototype, which he is working on with several partners, should be ready sometime this summer. The ASTR can be remote controlled and future versions may include bumpers, sensors and infrared technology to make it a truly autonomous unit, i.e. capable of performing patrols without much human intervention. So far Baghai has 40 pre-orders.
Sean Baghai’s penchant for tinkering and gadgets goes back to his youth. His entry into the security market actually stems from a shortage of remote control cars on store shelves one year.
“It was my eighth birthday and I wanted a remote control car. They didn’t have any. I was really upset and started to cry and everything. My dad went to Radio Shack — this is back in ’79 — and bought me an alarm panel. I got the whole house wired. I wired it myself. I ended up installing alarms in my room to keep my sister out. I enjoyed it so much, I started getting into the alarm business.”
It wasn’t long before Baghai got more serious about security as a career. In 1987, he formed his own company. Since he was legally too young for corporate responsibility, his father incorporated it for him and held it in trust until he was old enough to take it over.
“I’ve been running the company since high school and throughout university. The company has basically been in business for 24 years. I’ve been very dedicated to it.”
Baghai credits his father, Shane Baghai, with setting him on the right path and giving him the latitude to pursue his passion. He also happens to be one of his best clients. Shane Baghai is a well known name in the Toronto area condo business. The Shane Baghai Group of Companies is responsible for building some of the more tony residences in the city.
“He is definitely the best person you could ever work for because he’s a mechanical engineer by trade,” says Sean Baghai. “He will spend the premium to be No. 1 and be the first. If there’s a new device out on the market, or if I ever go to a security show with him or introduce him to a new product, he wants it. Regardless of the potential bugs or whatever happens, he wants to be the first to implement it. His buildings have always been more secure than the average building because I have the incentive to want to put in the state of the art stuff and play around with it.”
Baghai prides himself on his approach to security design. He’s secretive about his installations, almost obsessively so. He doesn’t maintain a website; there’s no competitive advantage, he says, and he doesn’t want to give competitors, or worse yet thieves, any insight into how he works.
“I’ve always been under the impression that a website doesn’t do anything for my business except validate who I am. What has scared me is, when I go to my competitors’ websites, I can immediately tell what panels they use. I can use that information, Google it, and find information about those panels, including installation manuals. . . . Maybe I’m a bit paranoid, but that’s the way I am.”
Baghai runs a deliberately lean operation — a staff of five (himself, a secretary, an installation manager and two technicians). He doesn’t advertise and relies on word of mouth and referrals for new business. He’s open to expansion, but it’s the technology that keeps him excited about the security industry.
“It’s very common for you to come to our office on a Friday night and see us with a pizza, overwhelmed with excitement over a new panel or a new electronic device where we’re just there figuring it out.”