Bay Area-based construction startup TraceAir today announced a $3.5 million Series A. Led by London-based XTX Ventures, this round brings the company’s total funding up to $7 million. The raise includes existing investor Metropolis VC, along with new additions Liquid 2 Ventures, GEM Capital, GPS Ventures and Andrew Filev.
We first noted the company back in 2016, when it pitched a method for using drones to spot construction errors before they become too expense. It’s a pretty massive field that various technology companies are attempting to solve through a variety of different means, ranging from quadrupedal robots to site-scanning hard hats.
Last February, TraceAir announced a new drone management tool. “Haul Router provides the best mathematically objective hauls for each given drone scan,” the company noted at the time. “Any employee can use the tool to design a haul road and export the results to feed into grading equipment.”
The pandemic has thrown the construction industry for a loop (along with countless others). But unlike other sectors, demand still remains high in many places. TraceAir is hoping its solution will prove beneficial as many outfits seek a way to continue the process in spite of uncertainty.
“The Covid-19 pandemic created new challenges for the U.S. and worldwide construction industries, resulting in delayed projects and growing unemployment rates,” CEO Dmitry Korolev said in a release tied to the news. “Our platform allows industry leaders to manage projects more efficiently and collaborate with their teams remotely, minimizing the need for a physical presence on-site.”
TraceAir says the additional funding will go toward its sales and marketing, along with future product developments, including an unnamed product set for release this quarter.
When Sony teased the AirPeak late last year, it didn’t give us much to go one. We knew the consumer electronics giant was finally getting in the drone business — but beyond that, not much else. Just a dark image or two from some piece of the UAV.
— Sony (@Sony) January 11, 2021
At CES this week, the company’s finally prepared to show off a bit more. “Today, we’re going to introduce a product that integrates AI and robotics,” CEO Kenichiro Yoshida said in an announcement video, “designed for adventurous creators.”
The drone is designed to carry Sony’s own imaging technology — specifically the Alpha series of mirrorless. And while it’s large compared to what we’re used to seeing on the consumer side from companies like DJI, Sony say it’s going to be the smallest drone on the market that can be equipped with its cameras.
Along with the announcement, the company’s also debuting footage of the drone in action, along with video captured with its on-board camera. The drone was flown through snow and managed to capture some lovely, stable footage, all things considered. Also of note: The car in the video is the Vision-S concept the company unveiled this time last year.
The system looks to compete with some of the more pro-focused models. DJI has that market under lock — along with practically all drone categories. Though while DJI owns a majority stake in Hasselblad, Sony’s system looks like a proprietary, purpose-built design. That could certainly be a bonus from the standpoint of compatibility, though it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to swap the Alpha out for different cameras.
The company is targeting a spring release for the system. No word yet on pricing.
Mapping the ocean’s floor is a surprisingly vital enterprise, which helps with a range of activities including shipping, coastal protection, and deep-sea resource gathering. It’s also a very costly and time-consuming activity, which can be demanding and dangerous for those involved. Saildrone is a startup focused on building out autonomous exploratory vessels that can do lots of mapping, while making very little impact on the environment in which they operate, and without requiring any crew on board at all.
Saildrone’s newest robotic ocean explorer is the Surveyor, its largest vessel at 72-feet long. The Surveyor can spend up to 12 months at a stretch out at sea, and draws its power from wind (hence the large sail-like structure, which is not actually used like the sail on a sailboat) and the sun (via the solar panels dotting its above-water surfaces). Its sensor instrumentation includes sonar that can map down to 7,000 meters (around 22,000 feet). That’s not quite as deep as some of the deepest parts of the world’s oceans, but it’s plenty deep enough to cover the average depth of around 12,100 feet.
As Saildrone notes, we’ve only actually mapped around 20% of the Earth’s oceans to date – meaning we know less about it than we do the surface of Mars or the Moon. Saildrone has already been contributing to better understanding this last great frontier with its 23-foot Explorer model, which has already accumulated 500,000 nautical miles of travel on its autonomous sea voyages. The larger vessel will help not only with seafloor mapping, but also with a new DNA sample collection effort using sensors developed the University of New Hampshire and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, to better understand the genetic makeup of various lifeforms that occupy the water column in more parts of the sea.
Sometimes it’s just not worth it to try to top Mother Nature. Such seems to have been the judgment by engineers at the University of Washington, who, deploring the absence of chemical sensors as fine as a moth’s antennas, opted to repurpose moth biology rather than invent new human technology. Behold the “Smellicopter.”
Mounted on a tiny drone platform with collision avoidance and other logic built in, the device is a prototype of what could be a very promising fusion of artificial and natural ingenuity.
“Nature really blows our human-made odor sensors out of the water,” admits UW grad student Melanie Anderson, lead author of the paper describing the Smellicopter, in a university news release. And in many industrial applications, sensitivity is of paramount importance.
If, for instance, you had one sensor that could detect toxic particles at a fraction of the concentration of that detectable by another, it would be a no-brainer to use the more sensitive of the two.
On the other hand, it’s no cake walk training moths to fly towards toxic plumes of gas and report back their findings. So the team (carefully) removed a common hawk moth’s antenna and mounted it on board. By passing a light current through it the platform can monitor the antenna’s general status, which changes when it is exposed to certain chemicals — such as those a moth might want to follow, a flower’s scent perhaps.
See it in action below:
In tests, the cybernetic moth-machine construct performed better than a traditional sensor of comparable size and power. The cells of the antenna, excited by the particles wafting over them, created a fast, reliable, and accurate signal for those chemicals they are built to detect. “Reprogramming” those sensitivities would be non-trivial, but far from impossible.
The little drone itself has a clever bit of engineering to keep the antenna pointed upwind. While perhaps pressure sensors and gyros might have worked to keep the craft pointing in the right direction, the team used the simple approach of a pair of large, light fins mounted on the back that have the effect of automatically turning the drone upwind, like a weather vane. If something smells good that way, off it goes.
It’s very much a prototype, but this sort of simplicity and sensitivity are no doubt attractive enough to potential customers like heavy industry and the military that the team will have offers coming in soon. You can read the paper describing the design of the Smellicopter in the journal IOP Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.
2020 has felt excessively long, and Election Day was no different. A drawn-out, five-day statistics exam for the nation, the process of naming our 46th president was met with exhaustion and, for many, elation when Joe Biden finally took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver his acceptance speech. The speech would have been the most noteworthy moment of the evening if only there hadn’t been that drone show, wowing both America and Biden himself, whose wide-eyed look of awe was immediately meme-ified.
The patriotic display was the work of Verge Aero, a small Philadelphia-based startup with six employees that’s pulled in pretty big clients, including the Philadelphia Eagles, Microsoft and, now, the crowning achievement for President-elect Biden’s campaign. With software and drones designed in-house specifically for light-show entertainment purposes, Verge Aero not only cornered the market on making impressive displays more accessible, but gave many who watched at home their first look at the precision of modern aerial imagery.
Verge Aero CEO Nils Thorjussen, an industry leader with a background in developing lighting solutions, led his team on three years of research and development to simplify and perfect the drone light show process. By building everything in-house, the company emerged with a fully integrated system, allowing the ease and execution befitting of large-scale events. When used in tandem, the design software and customized drones make producing an aerial display safer, easier and more cost-effective, not to mention extremely nimble.
Image Credits: Verge Aero
Given only two weeks to put Biden’s victory show together, Verge Aero collaborated with Strictly FX on a fireworks-laden display of 200 drones spelling out Biden’s campaign logo, “President Elect” and a map outline of the United States. Verge Aero’s Design Studio was created specifically for challenges like these, simplifying the entire process to build last-minute, large-scale shows with ease.
By eliminating hand-off from one platform to another, which can increase error risk, the all-in-one software suite automatically handles anti-collision calculations and flags issues and fixes for human error. Because of this, Verge Aero’s software application guarantees flight paths will not intersect. Simply put, their drones will not collide — and if you’re going to fly a swarm of drones near the president-elect, this is probably who you want doing it.
Gaining security clearances and governmental approvals may have been arduous, but the election night presentation was precisely what Verge Aero was created for: high adaptability that is executed flawlessly. (Thorjussen was unable to speak candidly about the process of Biden’s drone show when we talked, but further details about Verge Aero’s involvement have since been made public.)
Reticent to divulge specifics of how one pulls off a show of this kind, it’s easy to see the challenges involved in gaining clearance to fly hundreds of tiny robots within striking distance of the future leader of the free world. Not only was there pressure of a high-security, high-profile drone show, but one that had no guaranteed launch date. “A lot of our work is in highly unstructured changing environments, so we’re kind of used to rolling with the punches,” says Thorjussen; for the Biden display, their special effects team was on standby for nearly a week, from Tuesday through Saturday night.
Still, with an average Verge Aero drone show taking two people 45 minutes to set up 100 drones, it’s likely that prep time for Biden’s light display was less than two hours. Tight software-hardware integration removes the need for individualized flight paths and starting locations, a seamless change that allows show setup to be enacted more quickly.
Each drone also has a full copy of the show, not just their individualized flight pattern, and can be placed at any start position while software automatically checks placement and readiness.
“The reason it took us so long to get to where we are today, just in terms of development, is we wanted to create this toolkit for the designers that I’m used to working with so that they can operate the way they want to,” Thorjussen says. “One piece of that is being able to deploy quickly and to make changes quickly and on the fly, so that you can match the needs of the production as they evolve.”
Image Credits: Verge Aero
The first and only time Verge Aero flew the Biden drone show was the night of the acceptance speech. There was no need for a dress rehearsal, because there rarely is. Thorjussen stresses that Verge Aero’s pre-show renderings are pretty much identical to what you’d see in real life — a WYSIWYG ethos baked into their unique design.
“[I said] we’re gonna get this right from the beginning, do it from first principles, and actually create a proper infrastructure to do everything that we want to do — or anticipate wanting to do — so that we don’t get started and hit a roadblock because we can’t support what our designers want to do,” says Thorjussen.
Like their custom software, Verge Aero also developed their own drones, but not necessarily by choice. “It’s simply because we couldn’t go out and buy what we needed,” he says. “We’ve invested in some of the technology to make it super reliable, particularly with regards to communication, so that necessitated us making our own drone.”
Verge Aero worked toward developing a workhorse that could do a lot of tasks reliably, providing the clearly identifiable designs on display at Biden’s acceptance speech.
“We made two significant design decisions up front,” explains Thorjussen. “We focused on high accuracy in terms of positioning and… having a lot of light output. And when you have those two things, then you can do shows with fewer drones, because you have more precision.
Intel may be the household name, but Verge Aero is hot on its heels with a product that’s more nimble, easier to execute and much more dynamic. Like their in-house software, Verge Aero’s X1 drones are specifically created for light shows — no cameras, a “blindingly bright” LED light source — with top speed, show duration and wind tolerance nearly double that of the Intel Shooting Star.
Developed to be a workhorse specifically used in lighting displays, the X1 is heavier than the Shooting Star but a better and safer fit for entertainment purposes than Intel’s drones, and not just because theirs once fell on a TechCrunch writer’s head.
Still, it’s their multidisciplinary collaboration with Strictly FX that made this month’s rousing display so memorable — a testament for where Verge Aero’s leader sees their work heading in the future.
“Just doing drones, ultimately, will be boring,” says Thorjussen. “If you just do what I call ‘marching band content’ — you do Logo A to Logo B to Logo C — it’s not so interesting over time. Drones are just one tool in the arsenal of people putting on productions…the more elements, the more compelling a show will be.”
It seems to have been proven true — not just by the more than 35 million households watching at home but also President-elect Biden’s gleeful reaction to seeing it overhead. “I think that’s part of what made that a special moment,” says Thorjussen. “Needless to say, my phone exploded [when the] show was over.
Consumer drones have over the years struggled with an image of being no more than expensive and delicate toys. But applications in industrial, military and enterprise scenarios have shown that there is indeed a market for unmanned aerial vehicles, and today, a startup that makes drones for some of those latter purposes is announcing a large round of funding and a partnership that provides a picture of how the drone industry will look in years to come.
Percepto, which makes drones — both the hardware and software — to monitor and analyze industrial sites and other physical work areas largely unattended by people, has raised $45 million in a Series B round of funding.
Alongside this, it is now working with Boston Dynamics and has integrated its Spot robots with Percepto’s Sparrow drones, with the aim being better infrastructure assessments, and potentially more as Spot’s agility improves.
The funding is being led by a strategic backer, Koch Disruptive Technologies, the investment arm of industrial giant Koch Industries (which has interests in energy, minerals, chemicals and related areas), with participation also from new investors State of Mind Ventures, Atento Capital, Summit Peak Investments, Delek-US. Previous investors U.S. Venture Partners, Spider Capital and Arkin Holdings also participated. (It appears that Boston Dynamics and SoftBank are not part of this investment.)
Israel-based Percepto has now raised $72.5 million since it was founded in 2014, and it’s not disclosing its valuation, but CEO and founder Dor Abuhasira described as “a very good round.”
“It gives us the ability to create a category leader,” Abuhasira said in an interview. It has customers in around 10 countries, with the list including ENEL, Florida Power and Light and Verizon.
While some drone makers have focused on building hardware, and others are working specifically on the analytics, computer vision and other critical technology that needs to be in place on the software side for drones to work correctly and safely, Percepto has taken what I referred to, and Abuhasira confirmed, as the “Apple approach”: vertical integration as far as Percepto can take it on its own.
That has included hiring teams with specializations in AI, computer vision, navigation and analytics as well as those strong in industrial hardware — all strong areas in the Israel tech landscape, by virtue of it being so closely tied with its military investments. (Note: Percepto does not make its own chips: these are currently acquired from Nvidia, he confirmed to me.)
“The Apple approach is the only one that works in drones,” he said. “That’s because it is all still too complicated. For those offering an Android-style approach, there are cracks in the complete flow.”
It presents the product as a “drone-in-a-box”, which means in part that those buying it have little work to do to set it up to work, but also refers to how it works: its drones leave the box to make a flight to collect data, and then return to the box to recharge and transfer more information, alongside the data that is picked up in real time.
The drones themselves operate on an on-demand basis: they fly in part for regular monitoring, to detect changes that could point to issues; and they can also be launched to collect data as a result of engineers requesting information. The product is marketed by Percepto as “AIM”, short for autonomous site inspection and monitoring.
News broke last week that Amazon has been reorganising its Prime Air efforts — one sign of how some more consumer-facing business applications — despite many developments — may still have some turbulence ahead before they are commercially viable. Businesses like Percepto’s stand in contrast to that, with their focus specifically on flying over, and collecting data, in areas where there are precisely no people present.
It has dovetailed with a bigger focus from industries on the efficiencies (and cost savings) you can get with automation, which in turn has become the centerpiece of how industry is investing in the buzz phrase of the moment, “digital transformation.”
“We believe Percepto AIM addresses a multi-billion-dollar issue for numerous industries and will change the way manufacturing sites are managed in the IoT, Industry 4.0 era,” said Chase Koch, President of Koch Disruptive Technologies, in a statement. “Percepto’s track record in autonomous technology and data analytics is impressive, and we believe it is uniquely positioned to deliver the remote operations center of the future. We look forward to partnering with the Percepto team to make this happen.”
The partnership with Boston Dynamics is notable for a couple of reasons: it speaks to how various robotics hardware will work together in tandem in an automated, unmanned world; and it speaks to how Boston Dynamics is pulling up its socks.
On the latter front, the company has been making waves in the world of robotics for years, specifically with its agile and strong dog-like (with names like “Spot” and “Big Dog”) robots that can cover rugged terrains and handle tussles without falling apart.
That led it into the arms of Google, which acquired it as part of its own secretive moonshot efforts, in 2013. That never panned out into a business, and probably gave Google more complicated optics at a time when it was already being seen as too powerful. Then, SoftBank stepped in to pick it up, along with other robotics assets, in 2017. That hasn’t really gone anywhere either, it seems, and just this month it was reported that Boston Dynamics was reportedly facing yet another suitor, Hyundai.
All of this is to say that partnerships with third parties that are going places (quite literally) become strong signs of how Boston Dynamics’ extensive R&D investments might finally pay off with enterprising dividends.
Indeed, while Percepto has focused on its own vertical integration, longer term and more generally there is an argument to be made for more interoperability and collaboration between the various companies building “connected” and smart hardware for industrial, physical applications.
It means that specific industries can focus on the special equipment and expertise they require, while at the same time complementing that with hardware and software that are recognised as best-in-class. Abuhasira said that he expects the Boston Dynamics partnership to be the first of many.
That makes this first one an interesting template. The partnership will see Spot carrying Percepto’s payloads for high resolution imaging and thermal vision “to detect issues including hot spots on machines or electrical conductors, water and steam leaks around plants and equipment with degraded performance, with the data relayed via AIM.” It will also mean a more thorough picture, beyond what you get from the air. And, potentially, you might imagine a time in the future when the data that the combined devices source, results even in Spot (or perhaps a third piece of autonomous hardware) carrying out repairs or other assistance.
“Combining Percepto’s Sparrow drone with Spot creates a unique solution for remote inspection,” said Michael Perry, VP of Business Development at Boston Dynamics, in a statement. “This partnership demonstrates the value of harnessing robotic collaborations and the insurmountable benefits to worker safety and cost savings that robotics can bring to industries that involve hazardous or remote work.”
“As part of our regular business operations, we are reorganizing one small team within our larger Prime Air organization to allow us to best align with the needs of our customers and the business,” spokesperson Kristen Kish said in a statement offered to TechCrunch. “For affected employees, we are working to find roles in the areas where we are hiring that best match their experience and needs.”
The statement echoes similar sentiment from Amazon departments that have undergone headcount reduction, including the bit about attempting to shift employees around inside the company. Among other things, it’s an attempt to get out in front of suggestions that the project could be struggling. The company adds, however, that it is committed to the Prime Air project.
The initial report points to dozens of layoffs, though Amazon, unsurprisingly, is loath to give an exact figure. Understandably, the ambitious project, which would add rapid air delivers to Amazon’s existing robust delivery structure, hasn’t exactly been a quick launch.
In a blog post tied to the company’s RE:Mars conference last June, consumer head Jeff Wilke noted, “[W]ith the help of our world-class fulfillment and delivery network, we expect to scale Prime Air both quickly and efficiently, delivering packages via drone to customers within months.”
Certainly the health risks to essential workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a prime candidate for such a launch, but there are a number of hurdles for the program, including both regulatory and technological. In August, the service received FAA approval for trials.
The UK has announced a massive boost in defense spending — £16.5 billion ($21.8BN) over four years, the biggest such spending bump for 30 years — in what prime minister Boris Johnson has described as a “once in a generation modernization” of the UK’s armed forces and “the end of the era of retreat” on funding for defense.
Overall the UK prime minister said the spending hike will create 40,000 jobs, adding that it will cement the country’s position as the biggest military defense spender in Europe and the second largest in NATO after the US.
Johnson said the focus for investment will be on cutting edge technologies that can “revolutionize” warfare — implying a major role for artificial intelligence and sensor-laden connected hardware in “forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy”, as he put it in a statement to parliament, setting out the first conclusions from an the (ongoing) review of security, defense, development and foreign policy.
“A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors or satellites or drones instantly transmitting a warning using artificial intelligence to device the optimal response and offering an array of options — from summoning an air strike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralyzing the enemy with cyber weapons,” he told the House of Commons today, speaking via video conference as he continues to self isolate following a coronavirus contact.
“New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics,” Johnson went on, fleshing out the rational for spending on upgrading military technology. “Our warships and combat vehicles will carry directed energy weapons — destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. And for them the phrase out of ammunition will become redundant.”
“Nations are racing to master this new doctrine of warfare and our investment is designed to place Britain among the winners,” he added.
The review sets out at least £1.5BN extra — and £5.8BN total — spending on military R&D which Johnson said would be “designed to master the new technologies of warfare”.
There will also be a new R&D center set up with a dedicated focus on artificial intelligence, he added.
An RAF Space Command center is also in the works — with the aim of launching British satellites including the UK’s first rocket from Scotland in 2022.
While the airforce will get new fighter system which Johnson said will incorporate AI and drone technology.
Johnson also confirmed the existence of a National Cyber Force — a joint unit consisting of personnel from the UK’s intelligence agencies and military personnel which runs cyberops targeting terrorism, organized crime and hostile foreign state actors.
He suggested the hike in military spending on emerging technologies will filter down into wider societal tech gains, telling MPs: “The returns will go far beyond our armed forces — from aerospace to autonomous vehicles — these technologies have a vast array of civilian applications, opening up new vistas of economic progress.”
Responding to Johnson’s statement, the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, welcomed the announcement of increased spending for defense and armed forces — but accused the government of issuing another “press release without a strategy — pointing out that successive Conservative governments have eroded defense spending over the past ten years.
“This is a spending announcement without a strategy. The government has yet again pushed back vital parts of the integrated review and there’s no clarity over the government’s strategic priorities,” said Starmer, going on to query how the spending hike would be funded, given the economic crunch facing the UK as a result of the pandemic — asking whether it will require tax rises or cuts to public spending elsewhere, such as to the international development budget.
Starmer also raised the awkward matter of the Russia report — wondering why Johnson’s government has not acted on the “urgent” national security risks identified there.
The report, by parliament’s intelligence and security committee, found the UK lacks a comprehensive and cohesive strategy to respond to the cyber threat posed by Russia and other hostile states that are deploying online disinformation and influence ops to target democratic institutions and values.
It also sounded the alarm about how much Russian money is finding its way into UK political party coffers.
“The prime minister speaks of tackling global security threats, improving cyber capability — and that is all welcome, and we welcome it — but four months after the intelligence and security committee published its report concluding that Russia posed… an immediate and urgent threat to our national security,” noted Starmer.
Replying, Johnson dodged all Starmer’s questions — branding his criticisms “humbug [that] takes the cake” and opting to attack the Labour leader for having served under the party’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who did not support increasing UK defense spending.
Activity and fitness tracking platform Strava has raised $110 million in new funding, in a Series F round led by TCV and Sequoia, and including participation by Dragoneer group, Madrone Capital Partners, Jackson Square Ventures and Go4it Capital. The funding will be used to propel the development of new features, and expand the company’s reach to cover even more users.
Already in 2020, Strava has seen significant growth. The company claims that it has added more than 2 million new “athletes” (how Strava refers to its users) per month in 2020. The company positions its activity tracking as focused on the community and networking aspects of the app and service, with features like virtual competitions and community goal-setting as representative of that approach.
Strava has 70 million members, according to the company, with presence in 195 countries globally. The company debuted a new Strava Metro service earlier this year, leveraging the data it collects from its users in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide city planners and transportation managers with valuable data about how people get around their cities and communities — all free for these governments and public agencies to use, once they’re approved for access by Strava.
The company’s uptick in new user adds in 2020 is likely due at least in part to COVID-19, which saw a general increase in the number of people pursuing outdoor activities, including cycling and running, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when more aggressive lockdown measures were being put in place. As we see a likely return of many of those more aggressive measures due to surges in positive cases globally, gym closures could provoke even more interest in outdoor activity — though winter’s effect on that appetite among users in colder climates will be interesting to watch.
Sony has announced that it is entering the drone market with a new brand called Airpeak, though the specifics of the drone itself are left something of a mystery. It plans to launch the project next spring.
The bare-bones announcement says only that Sony has been inspired by the “recent proliferation” of drones and the changes they have caused in both the industrial and creative sectors.
Airpeak will focus on multiple industries as well, though it has its work cut out for it if it intends to go up against DJI, which has become the first choice in the consumer UAV sector.
Sony describes the drone as being developed within “the field of AI robotics,” which, along with the aim to enable drone use where it was previously difficult to do so, suggests Sony plans to integrate a fair amount of intelligence into the drones’ systems.
Small UAVs have gotten smarter and smarter, able now to avoid obstacles, recognize other flying objects and navigate between buildings without any intervention from their human operators. But many of these capabilities are still essentially theoretical rather than widely deployed.
Beyond the name, general flavor of the project and a render of what is almost certainly a rotor, that is the sum total of what we know about Sony’s new project. Expect more to be posted to the official website in time.