Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.
Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.
Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.
ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao. “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”
The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.
“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.
The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.
Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.
Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.
The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”
To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.
It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.
“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.
“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”
Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.
So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.
Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.
The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.
The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.
The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.
Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers
Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.
Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”
He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”
Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”
Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”
GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.
As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.
TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.
Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of TezLab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.
HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.
Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up TezLab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.
The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.
We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.
Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.
And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.
Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.
Locus (not to be confused with this Locus) is one of those names that’s been popping up a lot in the news — and this roundup — over the past year. Last time we spoke to the Massachusetts company, it was around a sizable raise — $150 million to be nearly precise. That effectively valued the company as a unicorn.
Core to the company’s successes are its partnerships (as is the case with any robotics fulfillment company). DHL has been a big (or the biggest) name in the mix since 2017. Amid pandemic lockdowns, the logistic giant signed up for 1,000 robots last year and, as of yesterday, is doubling that number.
Image Credits: Locus Robotics
DHL is really committing to robotics here. At last count, it said it had deployed around 200,000 across the U.S. alone, which puts its right around the same number as Amazon (which admittedly, hasn’t updated that figure lately). Of course, the big difference there is that Amazon is primarily pulling from in-house systems — perhaps Locus is a prime acquisition target?
The robotics company’s CEO shot down that suggestion when I spoke to him earlier this year, stating, “We have no interest in being acquired. We think we can build the most and greatest value by operating independently. There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.”
When it comes to companies with deep pockets, though, I never say never.
Image Credits: Realtime Robotics (opens in a new window)
Also out this morning, is a good size round from Realtime Robotics. The Boston-based company is one of a number of startups looking to streamline the process of installing and deploying industrial robotics. The $31.4 million Series A includes participation from (deep breath) HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.
Image Credits: E-Nano
There’s no such thing as a small raise, only a small…I’m not sure. Honestly, I didn’t really thing this one all the way through before I started typing. Anyway, here’s an early-stage, pre-seed from a London based startup called E-Nano. The company has developed a modular robotics system for monitoring sports turf.
Per a press release on the £100,000 ($141,000) raise, “These robots will eventually be able to assess agricultural land and contribute to landowners growing more sustainably. The team aims to implement 5G connectivity into their robots and platform, using this raise to deliver more immediate, real-time data with high throughput.”
Some good news for DJI comes courtesy of The Hill, which reports that the Pentagon has effectively cleared the drone giant in an audit. DJI was one of the names caught up in all of the flagging of Chinese companies that’s occurred over the past couple of years (read: during the Trump administration), which has severely kneecapped brands like Huawei and ZTE. DJI was never banned for sale outright in the States, but this is still a pretty massive relief for its ability to operate in such a large market.
The filing notes that it found “no malicious code or intent” from the company, going so far as “recommend[ing] use by government entities and forces working with US services.” Government use is a nice bonus there.
The company took a victory lap in a comment provided to TechCrunch, noting, “This U.S. government report is the strongest confirmation to date of what we, and independent security validations, have been saying for years – DJI drones are safe and secure for government and enterprise operations.”
Starship delivery robots at UCLA campus on January 15th, 2021. Image Credits: Starship/Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA
Starship Technologies, meanwhile, snagged a high-profile name to lead the delivery robotics firm. Former Alphabet Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth will be taking the same title at his new company.
Incidentally, Starship is one of a trio of companies I’ll be speaking with during my delivery robotics panel (also Nuro and Gatik) at the upcoming TC Sessions: Mobility. We also just announced my second panel, which will be exploring a pretty vibrant category in automotive.
Image Credits: Ford/Agility Robotics
Max Bajracharya of TRI (Toyota), Mario Santillo of Ford and Ernestine Fu of Hyundai Motor Group will be discussing their respective employers’ approach to robotics beyond manufacturing and autonomy. They’re all doing really interesting stuff, and Hyundai, of course, is getting ready to close its acquisition of Boston Dynamics.
Should be fun. Register here.
Boston-based Realtime Robotics this morning announced a $31.4 million round. The funding is part of the $11.7 million Series A the company announced all the way back in late 2019. Investors include HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.
Realtime is one of a number of startups building control on top of industrial robotics. Specifically, the startup looks to help companies deploy systems with limited programming, offering adaptable controls that work for multiple systems at once.
This round, which nearly doubles the company’s existing funding, will be used to accelerate its product development and extend its offering to more markets, globally. It comes as interest in robotics have ramped up amid the global pandemic.
“This investment by some of the world’s leading manufacturers and automation providers stands as a testament to our ability to dramatically improve the value proposition for robotic implementations,” CEO Peter Howard says in a release. “Having already realized early deployment success, a broad spectrum of customers and partners are working closely with us to refine features and user experiences, readying our technology for rollouts in their engineering, factory and warehouse operations.”
The company’s offerings serve a wide range of different industrial robotics tasks, including pick and place machines, packaging and palletizing boxes.
The events of the past year have only served to accelerate interest in all things robotics and automation. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen across a broad range of categories, and automotive is certainly no different.
Of course, carmakers are no strangers to the world of robotics. Automation has long played a key role in manufacturing, and more recently, robotics have played another central role in the form of self-driving vehicles. For this panel, however, we’re going to look past those much-discussed categories. Of late, carmakers have been investing heavily to further fuel innovation in the category.
It’s a fascinating space — and one that covers a broad range of cross-sections, from TRI’s (Toyota) Woven City project to Ford’s recent creation of a research facility at U of M to Hyundai’s concept cars and acquisition of Boston Dynamics. At TC Sessions: Mobility on June 9, we will be joined by a trio of experts from these companies for what’s sure to be a lively discussion on the topic.
Max Bajracharya is Vice President of Robotics at Toyota Research Institute. Previously serving as its Director of Robotics, he leads TRI’s work in robotics. He previously served at Alphabet’s X, as part of the Google Robotics team.
Mario Santillo is a Technical Expert at Ford. Previously serving as a Research Engineer for the company, he’s charged with helping lead the company’s efforts at a recently announced $75 million research facility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The work includes both Ford’s own robotics work, as well as partnerships with startups like Agility.
Ernestine Fu is a director at Hyundai Motor Group. She heads development at the newly announced New Horizons Studio, a group tasked with creating Ultimate Mobility Vehicles (UMVs). She also serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, where she received a BS, MS, MBA and PhD.
Get ready to talk robots at TC Sessions: Mobility. Grab your passes right now for $125 and hear from today’s biggest mobility leaders before our prices go up at the door.
We’re in the final run-up to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 on June 9, and the great stuff just keeps on coming. We’ve stacked the one-day agenda with plenty of programming to keep you engaged, informed and on track to build a stronger business. You’ll always find amazing speakers — some of the most innovative minds out there — on the main stage and in breakout sessions.
Dramatic pause for a pro tip: Don’t have a pass yet? Buy one here now for $125, before prices go up at the door.
“I enjoyed the big marquee speakers from companies like Uber, but it was the individual presentations where you really started to get into the meat of the conversation and see how these mobile partnerships come to life.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.
We have another exciting bit of news. We’re hosting pitch session for early-stage startup founders who exhibit in the expo at TC Sessions: Mobility. Each startup gets 1 minute to pitch to attendees in a breakout session. Remember, this conference has a global reach — talk about visibility! Want to pitch? Buy an Early Stage Startup Exhibitor Package as we only have 2 packages left.
Alrighty then…let’s look at some of the breakout & main stage sessions waiting for you at TC Sessions: Mobility 20201.
Learn how the CMC’s model of bringing their Clients’ new technologies to market is new and innovative, going beyond a typical demonstration or pilot program, to the point of product launch and sustaining market viability. Hear from an expert panel about how the CMC’s programming is unique, innovative, and game-changing.
The future of mobility starts with the next generation of transportation solutions. Attendees will hear from some of the most innovative names on opportunities that await when public and private entities team up to revolutionize the way we think about technology. Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer, will be joined by Nina Grooms Lee, Chief Product Officer of May Mobility.
Plus is applying autonomous driving technology to launch supervised autonomous trucks today in order to dramatically improve safety, efficiency and driver comfort, while addressing critical challenges in long-haul trucking — driver shortage and high turnover, rising fuel costs, and reaching sustainability goals. Mass production of our supervised autonomous driving solution, PlusDrive, starts this summer. In the next few years, tens of thousands of heavy trucks powered by PlusDrive will be on the road. Plus’s COO and Co-Founder Shawn Kerrigan will introduce PlusDrive and our progress of deploying this driver-in solution globally. He will also share our learnings from working together with world-leading OEMs and fleet partners to develop and deploy autonomous trucks at scale.
Data will play a vital role in solving the critical edge cases required to gain city approval and deploy autonomous transportation at scale. Pilot projects are underway across the U.S. and cities such as Las Vegas are leading the way for progressive policies, testing and adoption. But, how do these projects involving a limited number of vehicles gain city approval, expand to larger geographic areas, include more use cases and service more people? Join our expert panel discussion as we examine the progress, challenges and road ahead in harnessing data to enable multiple modes of autonomous transportation in major cities across the U.S.
Wejo provides accurate and unbiased unique journey data, curated from millions of connected cars, to help local, state, province and federal government agencies visualize traffic and congestion conditions. Unlock a deeper understanding of mobility trends, to make better decisions, support policy development and solve problems more effectively for your towns and cities.
With remote work becoming the new normal and the mass movement from the city to the Japanese countryside, the trend of private car ownership is growing day by day. During this session, we’ll be hearing from Sae Hyung Jung, serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of oVice. oVice is an agile communication tool that facilitates hybrid remote and virtual meetups. Most notably, a hope that can trigger a sudden expansion in the Japanese mobility and vehicle infrastructure.
Something I think that gets lost in the conversation around robotics is just how many different tasks can — and at some point will — be automated. Here I’m talking specifically about agtech. We’ve seen a ton of agricultural robotics come across our desk in recent years, and one of the more remarkable things about it all is just how broad the applications are.
There are all of the usual automated tasks you’d expect: produce picking, payload carting, weed pulling. All necessary farming tasks that seem to be well served by the industry. But what of rocks? Honestly, it’s something that hadn’t really occurred to me, having not spent any time on farms, aside from the occasional elementary school field trip.
TerraClear first entered our radar in 2018, mostly due to the founder’s former company (Smartsheet). Rocks are, quite literally, a big problem for farmers and farming equipment, so the company built a tractor/robot designed to pick them up. The system, which ships next year, will be able to grab up to 400 rocks an hour — individual rocks weighing up to 300 pounds.
The company just announced a $25 million Series A, which brings its total funding up to $36 million, says founder and CEO Brent Frei.
“There are more than 400 million arable acres worldwide that have been waiting for a cost-effective and productive solution to this problem,” said Frei. “Repetitive tasks like this are optimal targets for automation, and the technologies we are bringing to the field dramatically reduce the labor and time needed to prep fields for planting.”
Image Credits: Bowery Farming
Since we’re talking about farms and robots, Bowery Farming deserves a mention for a massive $300 million round. That puts the NYC-based company’s value at a beefy $2.3 billion. Robots, sensors and AI are a big part of Bowery’s vertical farming approach. The company’s already sending its produce to 850 grocery stores, along with a deal with Amazon Fresh.
It’s probably safe to say that indoor farming has a future for all sorts of reasons having to do with land use, climate and beyond.
Image Credits: MIT
Of course today’s research is tomorrow’s unicorns (this is not actually a saying…yet), and there are a couple of projects worth noting this week. Leading off the bunch is MIT, which is giving robotic inspection the finger. The oddly (but not inaccurately) named Digger Finger is capable of sensing and identifying objects underground. It’s a useful skill that could someday be deployed for landmines, finding underground cables and a variety of other tasks.
And here’s a nice feel-good story, as it were. A new paper published in Science from University of Pittsburgh engineers highlights the value of adding tactile feedback for prosthetic arms. This delivers some clear advantages over traditional vision sensing. Per the paper:
Flesher et al. added an afferent channel to the brain-computer interface to mimic sensory input from the skin of a hand (see the Perspective by Faisal). The improvements achieved by adding the afferent input were substantial in a battery of motor tasks tested in a human subject.
Rock picking is probably not the first thing you think about when you think agricultural robotics. Understandably so. There are a number of companies out there looking to automate aspects like fruit and vegetable picking, weeding and field tending, but rocks are still a major issue for many farmers. They’re big, they’re heavy and they can really mess up a piece of machinery.
“This is something I’ve personally dealt with my entire life,” TerraClear CEO Brent Frei said in a press release. “There are more than 400 million arable acres worldwide that have been waiting for a cost-effective and productive solution to this problem. Repetitive tasks like this are optimal targets for automation, and the technologies we are bringing to the field dramatically reduce the labor and time needed to prep fields for planting.”
TerraClear has built an automated robotic solution, capable of picking up to 400 rocks per hour and picking and moving ones weighing up to 300 pounds. Back in 2019, the Bellevue, Washington-based company announced a $6 million raise to expand its offering, and today it has announced a $25 million Series A.
Madrona Venture Group returns to lead the round, which brings its total funding up to $38 million. The funding will go toward scaling up the company’s production and sales for next year, as well as growing headcount. TerraClear’s Rock Picker robot is now up for preorder. The system works with mapping and third-party drone systems, using AI to identify large rocks, which the robot can then be deployed to clear out.
Kodiak Robotics, the U.S.-based self-driving truck startup, is partnering with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its autonomous vehicle technology in Asia.
The ultimate aim of the partnership is to sell and distribute Kodiak’s self-driving technology in the region. Kodiak will examine how it can use SK’s products, components and technology for its autonomous system, including artificial intelligence microprocessors and advanced emergency braking systems. Both companies have also agreed to work together to provide fleet management services for customers in Asia.
Kodiak co-founder and CEO Don Burnette couched the initial agreement as a first step towards a commercial enterprise in Asia.
“This is really just the first handful of steps to explore the possibility,” Burnette said. “What would it would look like to bring Kodiak’s AV technologies to Asian markets? What would be required? Who would be the partners? What are the regulatory forces that we have to contend with?”
Kodiak, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. and has operations in Texas, would be squaring off against at least two other self-driving companies — Plus and TuSimple — that already have a presence in the region. Both Plus and TuSimple announced mergers in the past six months with special purpose acquisition companies, an increasingly popular path for startup to go public.
While the partnership is at its earliest stage, it does connect Kodiak with a company that has a vast reach in South Korea as well as other countries in the region. The partnership is with SK Inc., a holding company of SK Group that has more than 120 operating companies, including ones connected to the logistics industry.
“Our partnership with Kodiak will help accelerate the commercialization of self-driving trucks in Asia,” said Jungho Shin, executive vice president of SK Inc. “Kodiak’s industry-leading technology and SK’s unrivaled reach in Korea and across Asia make this a natural partnership. We look forward to working with Kodiak to make autonomous trucking a reality around the globe.”
Burnette told TechCrunch the partnership agreement was reached after SK conducted an extensive technical review.
“They recognize the importance of AV technology broadly, they recognize the safety benefits, the economic benefits, and they want to play a role,” he said.
This is Kodiak’s first international expansion. But it might not be the last. Burnette said the company has been interested in certain international markets since it launched in 2018.
“We’ve had conversations about the Australian market,” Burnette noted. “I think Australia is another great market with future potential for this AV technology, particularly the long-haul highway, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere kind of driving. There’s South American markets. Brazil is a big one that’s interesting to us, and, of course, Europe.
This partnership with SK Inc. follows an announcement with the U.S. Air Force for a contract to bring autonomous transportation to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dover Air Force base in Delaware.
The events of the past year and a half could well mark the beginning of a sea change for the world of restaurant robotics. The essential industrial was slammed amid the pandemic, leaving many companies searching for a decent automated option that could both keep things running and potentially avoid transmission vectors.
Seattle-based Picnic is the latest to benefit from that interest, announcing a $16.3 raise this week. Led by Thursday Ventures — with participation from Creative Ventures, Flying Fish Partners and Vulcan Capital – the Series A includes a $3 million bridge filed last fall.
The company is one of a handful looking to automate the pizza-making process. It’s an obvious target for this technology, given both the food’s popularity and the relative uniformity, versus other meals. XRobotics debuted its own system late-late year, while Zume – possibly the best-known of the bunch – has long since exited the category.
Picnic, meanwhile, says interest in its own pizza system has ramped up of late, announcing a number of industry partnerships, including Orion Land Mark, Ethan Stowell Restaurants, National Service Cooperative and Baseline Hardware Financing. The plan is to roll the technology out to both restaurants and other public gathering spaces, including schools, stadiums and hospitals. The company says this latest round will go toward headcount and expanding operations.
Bright Machines is going public via a SPAC-led combination, it announced this morning. The transaction will see the 3-year-old company merge with SCVX, raising gross cash proceeds of $435 million in the process.
After the transaction is consummated, the startup will sport an anticipated equity valuation of $1.6 billion.
The Bright Machines news indicates that the great SPAC chill was not a deep freeze. And the transaction itself, in conjunction with the previously announced Desktop Metal blank-check deal, implies that there is space in the market for hardware startup liquidity via SPACs. Perhaps that will unlock more late-stage capital for hardware-focused upstarts.
Today we’re first looking at what Bright Machines does, and then the financial details that it shared as part of its news.
Bright Machines is trying to solve a hard problem related to industrial automation by creating microfactories. This involves a complex mix of hardware, software and artificial intelligence. While robotics has been around in one form or another since the 1970s, for the most part, it has lacked real intelligence. Bright Machines wants to change that.
The company emerged in 2018 with a $179 million Series A, a hefty amount of cash for a young startup, but the company has a bold vision and such a vision takes extensive funding. What it’s trying to do is completely transform manufacturing using machine learning.
At the time of that funding, the company brought in former Autodesk co-CEO Amar Hanspal as CEO and former Autodesk founder and CEO Carl Bass to sit on the company board of directors. AutoDesk itself has been trying to transform design and manufacturing in recent years, so it was logical to bring these two experienced leaders into the fold.
The startup’s thesis is that instead of having what are essentially “unintelligent” robots, it wants to add computer vision and a heavy dose of sensors to bring a data-driven automation approach to the factory floor.
As the autonomous vehicle industry in the United States marches toward consolidation, a funding spree continues to exhilarate China’s robotaxi industry. Momenta, Pony.ai, WeRide and Didi’s autonomous vehicle arm have all raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year. And 21-year-old search engine giant Baidu competes alongside the startups with a $1.5 billion fund launched in 2017 to help cars go driverless.
Their strategies are similar in some regards and diverge elsewhere. The biggest players have deployed small fleets of robotaxis, manned with safety drivers, onto certain urban roads and are diligently testing driverless vehicles inside pilot zones. Some companies embrace lidar to detect the cars’ surroundings, while others agree with Elon Musk on a vision-only future.
The industry is still years from being truly driverless and operational at scale, so some contestants are seeking easier cases to tackle and monetize first, putting self-driving software inside buses, trucks and tractors that roam inside industrial parks.
Will investors continue to back the lofty dreams and skyrocketing valuations of China’s robotaxi leaders? And how is China’s autonomous driving race playing out differently from that in the U.S.?
We hope to find out at the upcoming TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, where we speak to three female leaders from Chinese autonomous vehicle startups that have an overseas footprint: Jewel Li from AutoX, which is backed by Chinese state-owned automakers Dongfeng Motor and SAIC Motor; Huan Sun from Momenta, which attracted Bosch, Daimler and Toyota in its $500 million round closed in March; and Jennifer Li from WeRide, whose valuation jumped to $3 billion after a financing round in May.
We can’t wait to hear from this panel! Among the growing list of speakers at this year’s event are GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.
Stay tuned for more announcements in these final weeks. Book your general admission pass for $125 today and join this year’s deep dive into the world of all things transportation at TC Sessions: Mobility.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.
This morning was a notable one in the life of TechCrunch the publication, as our parent company’s parent company decided to sell our parent company to a different parent company. And now we’re to have to get new corporate IDs, again, as it appears that our new parent company’s parent company wants to rebrand our parent company. As Yahoo.
Anyway, a bunch of other stuff happened as well:
We’re back Wednesday with something special. Chat then!
Columbus, Ohio-based firm Path Robotics today announced the completion of a $56 million Series B. The round, led by Addition (featuring Drive Capital, Basis Set and Lemnos Lab) brings the robotic welding company’s total funding to $71 million.
Adding another piece to the broader automated manufacturing puzzle, the company is focused on robotic welding. The system uses scanning, computer vision and AI to adjust itself to different parts, understanding that sizing parts is a kind of imperfect science. Add to that the additional difficulty of working with highly reflective metals and you’ve got some interesting robotics problems to solve.
“Current industrial robotics have very little ability to understand their environment and the task at hand. Most robots merely repeat what they are told and have no ability to improve themselves,” CEO Andrew Lonsberry said in a release tied to the news. Our goal is to change this. The future of manufacturing hinges on highly capable robotics.”
The company says it’s looking to address a shortage in the welding workforce, which the American Welding Society says will experience a shortage of around 400,000 by 2024. The pandemic has also driven a number of companies to look for a more localized solution, apparently somewhat curbing the trend of offshoring the industry has seen in recent decades.
Some fun ones this week, so let’s get all of those pesky business transactions out of the way first, shall we? I mean, not that tens of millions of dollars changing hands for future robotics technology is boring, he said, tugging at his collar for comedic effect.
Image Credits: Plus One Robotics
Big raise this week for Plus One Robotics. The San Antonio-based company raised a healthy $33 million Series B, bringing its total funding above $40 million. The company mostly traffics in the warehouse and logistics space — obviously a category with a lot of excitement around it after last year’s massive shut down. As many companies have told me, most clients are simply looking for a way to help their footing in the competition against Amazon.
In addition to its massive headcount and seemingly bottomless resources, the e-commerce giant has deployed a huge army of robots in its warehouse. Plus One, for its part, doesn’t make the robots, but rather the vision software that works with them. The company’s product is designed to work across a broad range of robotic arms and grippers, allowing workers to control up to 50 systems at once.
Image Credits: Roam Robotics
We’ve talked about exoskeletons quite a bit on these pages, but Roam offers an interesting alternative to a number of bigger, bulkier and harder products on the market. The company’s latest device I liken to a standard knee brace, with AI and robotic capabilities that assist with movement. Specifically it helps with things like walking up stairs and standing up from a seated position.
And here we have a tiny tree man. Project Kiwi is kind of like Pinocchio if he really leaned into the whole wooden thing in the process of becoming a real boy. Obviously Disney’s going for the (sometimes) littlest Guardian of the Galaxy, Groot, for its latest extremely impressive animatronic.
Matthew was extremely impressed seeing the beautiful little tree guy in action and, living vicariously through some YouTube videos, I definitely have to confirm.
A fun bit of research out of Carnegie Mellon this week. The latest bit of biomimicry is a bit surprising. Obviously Cheetah has been a big inspiration for a number of quadrupedal robots (MIT in particular has a whole lot going in the Cheetah department). Specifically, though, the CMU researchers are looking at the big cat’s tail. Per CMU:
The cheetah’s lightweight furry tail is known as an aerodynamic drag tail; that is, it acts sort of like a parachute. Most robotic tails have high inertia, but the cheetah manages to retain low inertia. Inertia is a physical quality that describes an object’s resistance to changes in motion — high tail inertia means the tail can apply high forces. Aerodynamic tails instead use a different principle — aerodynamic drag — to achieve high forces without a large inertia.
Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress toward those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.
In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.
Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.
We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.
Book your early-bird pass today and save $100 before prices increase next week and join today’s leading mobility-startup event.