Last week, Kathryn Zealand shared some insight on the eve of Women’s Equality Day. The post highlighted an issue that’s been apparent to everyone in and around the robotics industry: there’s a massive gender gap. It’s something we try to be mindful of, particularly when programming events like TC Sessions: Robotics. Zealand cites some pretty staggering figures in the piece.
According to the stats, around 9% of robotics engineers are female. That’s bad. That’s, like, bad even by the standards of STEM fields in general — which is to say, it’s really, really bad. (The ethnic disparities in the same source are worth drawing attention to, as well.)
Zealand’s piece was published on LinkedIn — fitting, given that the overarching focus here is on hiring. Well worth your time, if you’re involved in the hiring process at a robotics firm and are concerned about broader diversity issues (which hopefully go hand in hand for most orgs). Zealand offers some outside of the box thinking in terms of what, precisely, it means to be a roboticist, writing:
We have a huge opportunity here! Women and other under-represented groups are untapped pools of talented people who, despite not thinking of themselves as “roboticists,” could be vital members of a world-changing robotics team.
I’m going to be real with you for a minute, and note what really caught my eye was that above image. See, Zealand is a Project Lead at Alphabet X. And what you have there is a robotic brace — or, rather, what appears to be a component of a soft exosuit.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
Exosuits/exoskeletons are a booming category for robotics right now that really run the gamut from Sarcos’ giant James Cameron-esque suit to far subtler, fabric-based systems. Some key names in the space include Ekso Bionics, ReWalk and SuitX. Heck, even Samsung has shown off a solution as part of a robotics department that appears to be largely ornamental at the moment.
Image Credits: Harvard Biodesign Lab
Most of these systems aim to tackle one of two issues: 1) Augmenting workers to assist with difficult or repetitive tasks for work and 2) Provide assistance to those with impaired mobility. Many companies have offers for both. Here’s what Harvard’s Biodesign Lab has to say on the matter:
As compared to a traditional exoskeleton, these systems have several advantages: the wearer’s joints are unconstrained by external rigid structures, and the worn part of the suit is extremely light. These properties minimize the suit’s unintentional interference with the body’s natural biomechanics and allow for more synergistic interaction with the wearer.
Alphabet loves to give the occasional behind-the-scenes peak at some of its X projects, and it turns out we’ve had a couple of glimpses of the Smarty Pants project. Zealand and Smarty Pants make a cameo in a Wired UK piece that ran early last year about the 10th anniversary of Google/Alphabet X. The piece notes that that the project was inspired by her experience with her 92-year-old grandmother’s mobility issues.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The piece highlights a very early Raspberry Pi-controlled setup created by a team that includes costume designers and deep learning specialists (getting back to that earlier discussion about outside the box thinking when it comes to what constitutes a roboticist). The system is using sensors in an attempt to effectively predict movement in order to anticipate where force needs to be applied for tasks like walking up stairs. The piece ends on a fittingly somber note, “Fewer than half of X’s investigations become Projects. By the time this story is published it will probably have been killed.”
My suspicion is that the team is looking to differentiate itself from other exosuit projects by leveraging Google’s knowledge base of deep learning and AI to build out those predictive algorithms.
Alphabet declined to offer additional information on the project, noting that it likes to give its moonshot teams, “time to learn and iterate out of the spotlight.” But last October, we got what is probably our best look at Smarty Pants, in the form of a video highlighting Design Kitchen, Alphabet X’s lab/design studio.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The Wired piece mentions a “pearlescent bumbag,” holding the aforementioned Raspberry Pi and additional components. For you yanks, that’s a fanny pack, which are not referred to as such in the U.K., owing to certain regional slang. Said fanny pack also makes an appearance in the video, providing, honestly, a very clever solution to the issue of hanging wires for an early-stage wearable prototype.
“One of the things that’s really helped the team is being really focused on a problem. Even if you spent months on something, if it’s not actually going to achieve that goal, then sometimes you honor the work that’s been done and say, ‘we’ve learned a ton of things during the process, but this is not the one that’s actually going to solve that problem.’ ”
The most notable takeaway from the video is some additional footage of prototypes. One imagines that, by the time Alphabet feels confident sharing that sort of stuff with the world, the team has moved well beyond it. “It doesn’t matter how janky and cardboard-and-duct-tape it is, as long as it helps you learn — and everyone can prototype, even while working from home,” the X team writes in an associated blog post.
The one other bit of information we have at the moment is a granted patent application from last year, which comes with all of the standard patent warnings. Seeing a patent come to fruition is often even more of a longshot (read: moonshot) than betting on an Alphabet X project to graduate. But they can offer some insight into where a team is headed — or at least some of the avenues it has considered.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The patent highlights similar attempts to anticipate movement as those highlighted above. It effectively uses sensors and machine learning to adjust the tension on regions of the garments designed to assist the wearer.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The proposed methods and systems provide adaptive support and assistance to users by performing intelligent dynamic adjustment of tension and stiffness in specific areas of fabric or by applying forces to non-stretch elements within a garment that is comfortable enough to be suitable for frequent, everyday usage. The methods include detecting movement of a particular part of a user’s body enclosed within the garment, determining an activity classification for that movement, identifying a support configuration for the garment tailored to the activity classification, and dynamically adjusting a tension and/or a stiffness of one or more controllable regions of the garment or applying force to non-stretch fabric elements in the garment to provide customized support and assistance for the user and the activity the user is performing.
It’s nice seeing Alphabet take a more organic approach to developing robotics startups in-house, rather than the acquisitions and consolidations that occurred several years back that ultimately found Boston Dynamics briefly living under the Google umbrella. Of course, we saw the recent graduation of the Wendy Tan White-led Intrinsic, which builds software for industrial robotics.
All right, so there’s a whole bunch of words about a project we know next to nothing about! Gotta love the startup space, where we’re definitely not spinning wild speculation based on a thin trail of breadcrumbs.
I will say for sure that I definitely know more about Agility Robotics than I did this time last week, after speaking with the Oregon-based company’s CEO and CTO. The conversation was ostensibly about a new video the team released showcasing Digit doing some menial tasks in a warehouse/fulfillment setting.
Some key things I learned:
Image Credits: Agility Robotics
Oh, and a good quote about job loss from CEO Damion Shelton:
The conversation around automation has shifted a bit. It’s viewed as an enabling technology to allow you to keep the workforce that you have. There are a lot of conversations around the risks of automation and job loss, but the job loss is actually occurring now, in advance of the automated solutions.
Agility hopes to start rolling out its robots to locations in the next year. More immediate than that, however, is this deal between Simbe Robotics and midwestern grocery chain, Schnuks. The food giant will be bringing Simbe’s inventor robots to all of its 111 stores, four years after it began piloting the tech.
Schnuck Markets deploys Tally robot by Simbe Robotics to its stores – bringing shelf insights for better shopping experience. Photographed on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Des Peres, Mo.
Simbe says its Tally robot can reduce out of stock items by 20-30% and detect 14x more missing inventor than standard human scanning.
Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with the prosthetic company of the same name that made it onto our Hardware Battlefield a few years back) just raised $27 million. The Series B brings its total funding to around $36 million. The Seattle-based firm builds autonomous robots that zap weeds with lasers. We highlighted their most recent robot in this column back in April.
And seeing how we recently updated you on iRobot’s continued indefinite delay for the Terra, here’s a new robotic mower from Segway-Ninebot.
Image Credits: Segway-Ninebot
Segway’s first robotic lawnmower is designed for a lawn area of up to 3,000 square meters, has several features of a smart helper in the garden and is the quietest mower on the market with only 54 dB. The Frequent Soft Cut System (FSCS) ensures that the lawn is cut from above and the desired height is reached gradually. Offset blades allow cutting as close as possible to edges and corners.
That’s it for the week. Don’t forget to sign up to get the upcoming free newsletter version of Actuator delivered to your inbox.
3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.
3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.
The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.
“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”
By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.
The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.
They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.
Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.
The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.
That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.
Image Credits: Astrobotic
“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.
Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.
Last-mile logistics supplier AxleHire provides same-day and next-day delivery through a network that includes gig economy, couriers and traditional carriers. Over the past year, it has been quietly piloting automated repositioning startup Tortoise’s remote controlled delivery robots in Los Angeles and compact container delivery service URB-E’s e-bike container delivery in New York City. On Thursday, it announced plans to scale the two very different zero-emissions pilot programs nationally over the next 12 months.
AxleHire, which is known for parcel delivery and restaurant meal kit delivery like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, plans to bring over 100 Tortoise robots across the country. During URB-E’s summer deployment with AxleHire in NYC, it deployed 10 vehicles moving 100 containers per week. Now it will deploy 50 URB-E vehicles moving anywhere from 300 to 500 containers per week in NYC, LA and San Francisco, as well as other launch cities. The company, which raised a $20 million round in April, didn’t specify every city it would be entering with these new programs, but Tortoise and URB-E said we can look to the cities AxleHire already operates in: Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
AxleHire’s style is to establish delivery hubs in or near dense metro areas, which makes for easier trips and less miles traveled in total. The partnerships with Tortoise and URB-E are a part of AxleHire’s mission to create more sustainable and cheaper last-mile delivery. The company says its partnerships with the two startups have also lowered its emissions by 95%. AxleHire is providing an example of one company trialing two very different greener and tech-focused forms of transporting goods, so it will likely serve as an interesting case study for other last-mile logistics providers.
Image Credits: URB-E
In New York, AxleHire and URB-E have been working together on a microcontainer delivery system between Brooklyn and Manhattan. URB-E’s vehicles are specifically designed to be able to ride in the bike lanes, despite their ability to haul over 800 pounds. AxleHire says its pilot with URB-E resulted in a six times reduction in traffic and a model that is three times cheaper than EV delivery vans, largely based on the avoidance of parking tickets.
Over the past year in Los Angeles, AxleHire stationed Tortoise’s electric, 4-mph remote-piloted carts, which carried up to 120 pounds worth of goods, in its delivery microhubs in cities, allowing the little bots with friendly smiley faces to go back and forth, making about 15 deliveries per day within a three-mile radius. In addition, AxleHire loaded a large truck with multiple packages and a Tortoise robot, which would then drive into a dense residential area. This truck would serve as a mobile delivery hub, doing its own deliveries while the bot goes back and forth delivering parcels and being reloaded all day long.
“It’s basically the hive model, where we’re augmenting the existing van or truck in terms of how many deliveries they could do in a two-hour stretch,” Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder of Tortoise, told TechCrunch. “There’s communication happening with our subject confirming they’ll be home to receive it. If so, they get notified that the robot’s on the way when it’s about 10 minutes away, and then when it arrives, the customer will come out and get it from the containers in the robot.”
The Tortoise bots, which can ride on sidewalks or bike lanes, have both swappable batteries and can be plugged and charged, according to Shevelenko. On a single charge, they can get around 10 to 15 miles of range.
While Tortoise’s bots will be operated 100% remotely over the next year, remote positioning is not Tortoise’s end goal at all. Autonomy is the goal, and doing partnerships like this, as well as with shared e-scooter operators like Spin, allows Tortoise not only to get into markets that currently don’t have regulation for self-driving vehicles, but also to just get into the market now, rather than spending multiple years mapping it first. The only real infrastructure the bots need is 4G connectivity.
“The beauty is that we can ship the robot to a new location and because we have the benefit of human judgment oversight every inch of the journey,” said Shevelenko. “We don’t need perfect routing or perfect mapping. We’re filling in the maps over time, and that gives us a big data advantage.”
By slowly collecting routing data over the course of the next year, Tortoise will be giving its system more data to learn on and create the most optimal route for the specific use case of low-speed and lightweight delivery vehicles. Shevelenko says the long-term vision of Tortoise is to have its tech on any light electric vehicle, whether it be a delivery robot, a scooter, a cleaning robot, security robot or construction robot. Delivery is a great place to start, given the massive demand in the COVID marketplace.
“The more vehicles we have with Tortoise eyes on them, the more data we’re collecting, which means we’re doing trips with higher autonomy and lower costs,” said Shevelenko.
Aside from allowing for max data collection, remote controlled delivery bots over the next year also give Tortoise the advantage of getting the community used to this new tech.
“We think the right way to enter a community is first to reassure people that this is safe and get them comfortable with it,” said Shevelenko. “Once it’s part of daily life, then slowly over time, we can turn on more autonomy, but there’s no need to rush into that right now. The practical reality is, everybody’s claiming they’re doing autonomy but they aren’t. They always have a fallback like safety drivers or remote monitors. Nobody actually trusts their economy system, and so we’re kind of leaning into that and not trying to do something that is impossible.”
A new video from Agility Robotics showcases an increasing familiar sight: advanced, autonomous robots performing boring warehouse tasks. It’s not the sort of video that tends to be hugely viral for a company, rather, it’s the sort of meat and potatoes proof of concept that companies like Boston Dynamics wedge between flashy videos of parkour and highly choreographed dance sessions.
Ultimately, however, this is precisely the sort of tasks the robots’ creators are targeting: the well-known trio of dull, dirty and dangerous. Moving payloads back and forth certainly ticks that first box pretty well. There’s a reason warehouse and fulfillment workers often liken their work to robotics.
“The conversation around automation has shifted a bit,” Agility CEO Damion Shelton tells TechCrunch. “It’s viewed as an enabling technology to allow you to keep the workforce that you have. There are a lot of conversations around the risks of automation and job loss, but the job loss is actually occurring now, in advance of the automated solutions.”
Digit, the bipedal robot the company announced back in 2020, had its most high-profile moment in the spotlight after Agility announced a partnership with auto giant Ford back at CES. The auto giant currently owns two of the robots, with long-term plans to utilize the technology for delivery.
Today’s video is an attempt to showcase some more short-term solutions, putting Digit to work on more menial tasks.
Image Credits: Agility Robotics
“The value and goal of a machine like Digit is the generality,” CTO Jonathan Hurst says. “It’s a robot that can operate in human environments and spaces. It’s a relatively straightforward thing for very structured, repetitive tasks, to say, ‘there’s going to be boxes over there. We’re going to tell you which one from a databasing system, and we want you to move it over there.’ Maybe this is something that it does for three or four hours a day and then it goes to a different space and does it three or four hours and then it unloads a tractor trailer.”
The company sees Digit’s value as a more plug and play solution than something like Berkshire Gray’s offerings, which builds a fully automated warehouse from the ground up. There’s still programming involved, of course. An Agility rep will appear on-site to pre-map a location and help the robot execute its repetitive tasks.
“In terms of where we can actually deploy and do useful work for a customer, it turns out a lot of the tasks — walk from Point A to Point B, pick up and carry a package — are portable across these environments,” says Shelton. “There’s no real core piece of technology that you develop, that’s different for an indoor environment versus outdoor. It’s just the level of maturity. I think we’ve reached that pretty quickly on the indoor stuff, so it’s a logical first place for deployment.”
Image Credits: Agility Robotics
Agility hasn’t announced partners beyond Ford, though it says it’s currently working with “major logistics companies.” It hasn’t revealed numbers of Digits sold, either, though it tells TechCrunch that the number is “substantially more” than the dozen Cassie units it sold prior to Digit, largely for research purposes. Sales are largely CapEx at the moment, though the company is exploring other opportunities, such as a RaaS (robotics-as-a-service model).
Agility’s team is currently at 56 people, primarily based in Oregon (the company got its start as part of OSU’s nascent robotics division), where the robots are primarily manufactured.
“We’ve grown pretty rapidly since last December,” says Shelton. “We’re expanding our Pittsburgh office by the end of the year, in addition to the Oregon office. We have a pretty rapid growth rate. As we’ve been increasing the production rate on the robots, we’ve had a fair amount of hiring for that. We just moved into a new facility that we remodeled, back in June.”
Agricultural robotics firm Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with our former Battlefield contestant) announced this week that it has secured $27 million in funding. The round — which features Anthos Capital, Ignition Capital, Fuse Venture Partners and Voyager Capital — follows an $8.4 million Series A raised back in 2019. The company’s total funding is now at around $36 million.
“Weeding is one of the biggest challenges farmers face, especially with the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds and increasing interest in organic and regenerative methods,” founder and CEO Paul Mikesell said in a release. “This round of investment will enable us to scale our operations to meet the increasing demand for this technology. Additionally, this funding will allow our team to continue to innovate new products and identify revolutionary ways to apply technology to agriculture.”
The Seattle-based startup’s primary offering is an autonomous robot that uses lasers to zap weeds. The round follows the April announcement of Carbon’s latest-generation Autonomous Weeder, which it says is capable of eradicating around 100,000 weeds per hour. The pandemic has continued to accelerate interest in many agricultural robotics companies, as labor shortages continue to mount.
Carbon notes some international bans on various pesticides have left many farmers searching for an alternative solution. A system that works without the need for harmful chemicals that also reduces human labor in an industry often suffering from shortages in headcount has clear appeal.
The company says it has already sold out of its 2021 and 2022 stock, so one assumes scaling up production and headcount will be key investments from this round.
St. Louis-based grocery chain Schnucks (one of those “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good” situations, one imagines) announced this week that it will be deploying technology from Simbe Robotics across its 111 U.S. locations.
The deal comes a year and a half into a global pandemic that has substantially increased interest in automation, particularly around essential businesses – a qualifier that certainly applies to grocery stores.
Simbe’s mobile robots provide inventory scanning, offering a constantly updating picture of what’s on the store shelves and what needs to be restocked. Anyone who’s ever worked retail can almost certainly tell you that doing inventory is one of the biggest headaches in the industry, often requiring hours-long shutdowns or overnight marathons to complete.
The “multi-year” chain-wide rollout comes four years after Schnucks first began piloting the tech. Over the years, the partnership has gradually expanded. Simbe says its shelf-scanning Tally robot is capable of reducing out of stock items by 20-30% and detect 14 times more missing inventory than traditional human scanning.
Schnuck Markets deploys Tally robot by Simbe Robotics to its stores – bringing shelf insights for better shopping experience. Photographed on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Des Peres, Mo.
“By deploying Tally to all stores, we are fully operationalizing these insights into our supply chain and expanding our ability to leverage real-time data to make revenue impacting decisions,” Schnucks VP Dave Steck said in a release. “Tally has become an integral component of our stores, streamlining operations and ultimately creating a better store experience for our customers and teammates.”
A number of companies are working to automate the world of inventory scanning, including Brain Corp and Bossa Nova, though the latter was dealt a massive setback when Walmart ended a large contract at the end of 2020.
We’re becoming a newsletter soon! Please sign up to get Actuator in your inbox as soon as the first issue hit!
One of the most fascinating aspects of Boston Dynamics’ transition into a commercial organization is watching the company — and its partners — figure out real-world jobs for Spot. There’s no question that the tech is impressive, but there’s always been the broader subject of usefulness beyond the company’s initial purpose of serving as off-road pack mules.
We’ve seen some interesting examples since Spot first went on sale, including inspection for constructions sites and potentially dangerous settings — from nuclear power plants to off-shore oil rigs. There have also been some, shall we say, more controversial gigs, including Spot’s time as an electronic K9 for the NYPD.
But maybe finding the perfect job for Spot entails thinking both outside the box and Earth’s gravitational pull. NASA’s JPL in California has been working with the quadrupedal robot for a couple of years now, first as part of a DARPA challenge and now as a potential way to explore extraterrestrial caves. For this week’s installment of Actuator, we spoke to JPL NeBula Autonomy Project lead Ali Agha about the partnership.
How long has NASA been working with Spot?
We have been working with the SPOT robots for about two years now. We initially integrated our NeBula autonomy and AI solutions on the Spot robot as one of our robots participating in the DARPA Subterranean challenge competition. However, since then we have extended the application of these robots and JPL’s NeBula autonomy solution to planetary cave exploration and surface exploration as well as terrestrial disaster response and mining efforts.
What is the advantage of using legs (as opposed to wheels) on the Martian surface?
Imagine a no-road terrain on Earth. The ability to walk will allow traversing different elements of such a terrain much better than a typical wheeled vehicle. Similarly, legged locomotion can potentially enable totally new missions when exploring extreme and challenging terrains on planetary bodies in the solar system beyond our home planet.
How closely does NASA/JPL work with a company like Boston Dynamics on a project like this?
We have had an amazing collaboration with Boston Dynamics and work closely with them. On our project, JPL and Boston Dynamics’ efforts are highly synergistic. At JPL, we develop autonomy and AI solutions (called NeBula) acting as the robot brain to enable fully autonomous exploration of extreme and challenging environments with very minimal (to none) prior information about the terrain or environmental conditions.
NeBula is agnostic to the choice of robotic platform and can be used on wheeled rovers, legged platforms, as well as drones. On the other hand, Boston Dynamics is developing cutting-edge incredible robotic locomotion systems that can maintain the stability of the system over extreme environments. As a result, the combination of an autonomy solution like NeBula with a capable locomotion system like Boston Dynamics’ Spot opens up avenues for totally new classes of planetary and terrestrial missions.
I know autonomy is a big piece of this. Do the robots need to be able to function with no human intervention?
Yes, autonomy is the main focus of our project. In planetary exploration, specifically, when exploring underground caves, there is no, or very minimal, prior information about the environment. Further, when robots enter the cave, they typically lose communication with the surface and are on their own to accomplish the mission objectives.
As a result, autonomy is a crucial capability to enable such missions to accomplish mission goals with no human intervention when the robot is out of communication exploring previously unseen terrains and environments. To this end, JPL has been developing autonomy and AI solutions (called NeBula) acting as the robot brain, which is now being paired with Boston Dynamics Spot robots as the robot body.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
A bit closer to Earth (as in, roughly 100 to 150 feet above our heads), Alphabet’s Wing announced this week that it’s approaching 100,000 drone deliveries two years after launching in the Brisbane-adjacent city of Logan, Australia. The announcement follows recent insight into Amazon’s struggles in the drone delivery space.
The company told TechCrunch,” I think we’ll launch new services in Australia, Finland and the United States in the next six months. The capabilities of the technology are probably ahead of the regulatory permissions right now.”
Image Credits: Wing
A closer look at some of those 100,000 deliveries:
Image Credits: Coco
Speaking of food, LA-based Coco just raised $36 million for its delivery robots. The round brings its total funding up to $43 million. The UCLA spinout is currently piloting its 50-pound, remote-piloted robots in a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. The company tells TechCrunch:
We are currently operating in Santa Monica and in five different L.A neighborhoods. Later this year we are expanding into a number of other major U.S. cities. We have partnered with national restaurant brands like SBE (Umami Burger) and are actively scaling across many locations, and we are serving a wide range of family operated restaurants like Bangkok West Thai in Santa Monica and San Pedro Brewing Company in Los Angeles. We are out of the pilot phase and are launching with dozens of new merchants every day.
Image Credits: Spyce
Meanwhile, California-based fast casual salad chain Sweetgreens just acquired Spyce. Built by MIT alums, the company develops kitchen robotics, which it has rolled out in a pair of Boston-based restaurants. Sweetgreens eventually plans to implement these in some of its 120+ locations, though no timeline has been given as of yet.
In this week’s small-ray-of-sunshine-in-an-otherwise-horrifying-situation news, a team of young women roboticists managed to evacuate Kabul amid the Taliban takeover. The team has found refuge in Mexico on a 180-day humanitarian visa, with an option to extend their stay.
“From now on forward we will have opportunities for many more achievements in our lives, and thus be part of the fight for a better life,” team member Fatemah Qaderyan said at a press conference on their arrival in the country. “Although we are far from our homes, we will always be united and thanks to your help we will achieve it, thank you very much, we really appreciate having all our things here in Mexico with us.”
The team also made international headlines in 2017, as they entered the U.S. on a 10-day “parole,” in spite of the Trump administration’s executive order banning entry from predominately Muslim countries.
Image Credits: Tesla (opens in a new window)
Before we go, a thought on the Tesla robot. Or, rather, a story. A few years ago, I was asked to be on a panel discussing robots for a group of people who weren’t really familiar with the field. That’s fine. There’s a lot to be said for getting outside your comfort zone. At the end, we opened things up to Q&A.
As is nearly always the case with these things, the first question — well, it wasn’t a question really. It was more of a laundry list of things the asker would like to see a robot do. She went on to describe a small drone that flies from surface to surface, cleaning different parts of the house. I told her it sounded great, and I’d love to see her invent it.
Point is, I think the vast majority of people outside of robotics have an entirely unrealistic idea of what’s possible with technology today. There’s a reason iRobot spent the better part of a decade banging its head against the wall, working out a robot that can vacuum floors. There’s also a reason that the Roomba is really the only semi-ubiquitous home robot. Always be wary of robots announced onstage as a press event.
I’m not saying a Tesla robot is impossible. I’m just saying we have to temper our expectations of what is. Sometimes you go in expecting a robot and get someone in a spandex onesie doing the Dougie:
Image Credits: Tesla
Like so many other aspects of the robotics world, the pandemic has dramatically accelerated interest in the automated kitchen. After all, the food and restaurant industry was deemed essential amid global shutdowns, but finding kitchen staff proved a problem for many, especially early on when questions remained around COVID’s transmission.
This week, California-based fast casual salad chain Sweetgreen announced plans to go all in on automation with the acquisition of Spyce. Founded in 2015, the Boston-based startup started making waves a few years back as a spinout of MIT mechanical engineering students. First serving up food at the school’s dining hall, the team ultimately opened a pair of automated restaurants in the Boston area. The startup notes, “our Spyce restaurants will stay open at this time.”
Sweetgreen plans to eventually incorporate Spyce’s technology into its restaurants. It will likely take some time to scale up to the needs of the chain, which currently operates more than 120 locations across the U.S.
Image Credits: Spyce
“We built Sweetgreen to connect more people to real food and create healthy fast food at scale for the next generation, and Spyce has built state-of-the-art technology that perfectly aligns with that vision,” Sweetgreen CEO and co-founder Jonathan Neman said in a statement. “By joining forces with their best-in-class team, we will be able to elevate our team member experience, provide a more consistent customer experience and bring real food to more communities.”
Like pizza, salads are a clear target for early food automation. They’re both popular and relatively straightforward to automate — essentially mixing a bunch of ingredients from different chutes into a bowl.
Sweetgreen is quick to note that the plan isn’t to replace employees outright, however.
“[T]eam members will be able to focus more on preparation and hospitality moments, while having the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art technology,” the company writes. “Invest more in training and development to support team members to become Head Coaches. Interested team members will be able to develop technology-facing skills to operate and maintain Spyce technology.”
The deal is expected to close in Q3. Terms were not disclosed.
Los Angeles delivery robot startup Coco this week has announced $36 million in funding. The Series A was led by Sam Altman, Silicon Valley Bank and Founders Fund, with participation from Sam Nazarian, Ellen Chen and Mario Del Pero. It brings the company’s total funding up to around $43 million.
“I strongly believe the delivery service industry in its current state is massively under-serving merchants. We have an enormous opportunity to create a better experience for hundreds of thousands of merchants and their customers, today,” co0founder and CEO Zach Rash said in a release. “This is not a research program experimenting with technology to be productized at some unknown point in the future.”
Image Credits: Coco
The UCLA spinout, formerly known as Cyan Robotics, is operating in a crowded field that includes names like Starship, Nuro and UC Berkeley alum Kiwibot. Rather than pushing for full autonomy, Coco’s solution utilizes remote drivers (which are a more popular solution than many companies care to admit).
Coco is still young, having launched in February 2020. The company currently has a headcount of 120, with plans to “grow to over 1,000” by end of year, as the pandemic continues to fuel additional interest in robotic deliveries. The new funding will also go toward hardware and additional city launches.
Coco says it has been able to operate with a 97% on-time rate, while reducing delivery times for its clients by around 30%. The company lacks a massive partner like Nuro’s work with Domino’s, though California-based Umami Burger is probably the largest on a list of 18 restaurant partners currently listed on Coco’s site.
“We are currently operating in Santa Monica and in five different L.A neighborhoods,” the company tells TechCrunch. “Later this year we are expanding into a number of other major U.S. cities. We have partnered with national restaurant brands like SBE (Umami Burger) and are actively scaling across many locations, and we are serving a wide range of family operated restaurants like Bangkok West Thai in Santa Monica and San Pedro Brewing Company in Los Angeles. We are out of the pilot phase and are launching with dozens of new merchants every day.”
On October 27, we’re taking on the ferociously competitive field of software as a service (SaaS), and we’re thrilled to announce our packed agenda, overflowing with some of the biggest names and most exciting startups in the industry. And you’re in luck, because $75 early-bird tickets are still on sale — make sure you book yours so you can enjoy all the agenda has to offer and save $100 bucks before prices go up!
Throughout the day, you can expect to hear from industry experts, and take part in discussions about the potential of new advances in data, open source, how to deal with the onslaught of security threats, investing in early-stage startups and plenty more.
We’ll be joined by some of the biggest names and the smartest and most prescient people in the industry, including Javier Soltero at Google, Kathy Baxter at Salesforce, Jared Spataro at Microsoft, Jay Kreps at Confluent, Sarah Guo at Greylock and Daniel Dines at UiPath.
You’ll be able to find and engage with people from all around the world through world-class networking on our virtual platform — all for $75 and under for a limited time with even deeper discounts for nonprofits and government agencies, students and up-and-coming founders!
Our agenda showcases some of the powerhouses in the space, but also plenty of smaller teams that are building and debunking fundamental technologies in the industry. We still have a few tricks up our sleeves and will be adding some new names to the agenda over the next month, so keep your eyes open.
In the meantime, check out these agenda highlights:
We’ll have more sessions and names shortly, so stay tuned. But get excited in the meantime, we certainly are.
Pro tip: Keep your finger on the pulse of TC Sessions: SaaS. Get updates when we announce new speakers, add events and offer ticket discounts.
Why should you carve a day out of your hectic schedule to attend TC Sessions: SaaS? This may be the first year we’ve focused on SaaS, but this ain’t our first rodeo. Here’s what other attendees have to say about their TC Sessions experience.
“TC Sessions: Mobility offers several big benefits. First, networking opportunities that result in concrete partnerships. Second, the chance to learn the latest trends and how mhttps://techcrunch.com/2021/06/24/databricks-co-founder-and-ceo-ali-ghodsi-is-coming-to-tc-sessions-saas/obility will evolve. Third, the opportunity for unknown startups to connect with other mobility companies and build brand awareness.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.
“People want to be around what’s interesting and learn what trends and issues they need to pay attention to. Even large companies like GM and Ford were there, because they’re starting to see the trend move toward mobility. They want to learn from the experts, and TC Sessions: Mobility has all the experts.” — Melika Jahangiri, vice president at Wunder Mobility.
First of all, we’ve got a fancy new name. While “Robotics Roundup” was nothing if not very technically accurate, it lacked the kind of panache one ought to strive for when rounding up robotics. Actuator, on the other hand — that’s a mover and shaker.
It’s a name you can take to the bank (or at least run by the legal department for clearance). To mark this momentous occasion, we employed our resident graphic design genius Bryce to sketch up something befitting our rebrand.
We’re also using the opportunity to announce that Actuator will be coming soon to an inbox near you as a free TechCrunch newsletter. All of this fun change seems extra fitting, given that this happens to be the 25th edition of the roundup. You can find all of the older updates under our Actuator tag if you want to catch up.
If you’ve been following for a while, you’ve got the gist of what the newsletter is about: a digestible look into the week’s robotics news. We cover all of the startups making waves and the big companies impacting the industry, along with the most fascinating updates in the world of robotic research, as well as dives into labor concerns and various ethical issues stemming from automation and AI.
If all of that sounds good, you can sign up here to get Actuator in your inbox as soon as the first issue hits. I’m told you may have to prove you’re not a robot, so apologies in advance to all of the robots reading this. But hey, if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll figure it out.
Image Credits: Intel
Following an earlier report from CRN, Intel has since confirmed with TechCrunch that it will be winding down its 3D imaging platform, RealSense. It’s always a shame to see these sorts of forward-looking initiatives go away. And certainly Intel has been leaning pretty heavily on the division as a leading indicator of its efforts to remain relevant as the industry evolves.
Over the years, we’ve covered RealSense’s involvement in drones, robotics and AR/VR. In June of last year, we covered the platform’s embrace of 5G connectivity.
Image Credits: Intel
“We are winding down our RealSense business and transitioning our computer vision talent, technology and products to focus on advancing innovative technologies that better support our core businesses and IDM 2.0 strategy,” the company said in a statement offered to TechCrunch. “We will continue to meet our commitments to our current customers and are working with our employees and customers to ensure a smooth transition.
Translation: The company is choosing to focus its core competency. IDM 2.0 refers specifically to the new chipmaking strategy into which the company is pumping $20 billion. Understandable, but it’s always hopeful to see big companies like Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm really go all in on such forward-facing technologies.
Boston Dynamics, meanwhile, made news this week, ostensibly for another slick viral video, this one featuring the Hyundai-owned company’s humanoid Atlas robot. By now we’re all well aware of the fact that the company makes impressive robots and highly effective YouTube videos that launch a million Black Mirror and Terminator jokes on Twitter.
I’ve seen Atlas do some really impressive stuff in person at BD’s headquarters, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s currently capable of. So, while Atlas is extremely cool, I didn’t find the recent parkour video especially shocking. What did catch me off guard, however, was the fact that the company also used the opportunity to essentially publish some outtakes from the film.
Image Credits: Boston Dynamics
A six-minute, behind-the-scenes video featured a montage of Atlas falling on its face. Like any great skateboarding video, there are a few gratuitous shots included that demonstrate that, regardless of how advanced the system is, there are still going to be some face-planting, gasket-blowing falls that leave its chest scuffed in a pool of its own fluid. The company notes:
During filming, Atlas gets the vault right about half of the time. On the other runs, Atlas makes it over the barrier, but loses its balance and falls backward, and the engineers look to the logs to see if they can find opportunities for on-the-fly adjustments.
"We'll be singing / when we're winning." pic.twitter.com/51DYD1Avvg
— Brian Heater (@bheater) August 17, 2021
That’s probably enough news of shuttered divisions and bodily robot harm for this week. A couple of fundraising rounds are worth noting.
First is Rapid Robotics, which has been on a fundraising tear of late. The new $36.7 million Series B values the manufacturing robotics company at $192.5 million and marks its third(!) fundraising round in a year that started with a seed raise.
Image Credits: Rapid Robotics
CEO Jordan Kretchmer cites pandemic-fueled manufacturing bottlenecks as a big source of interest in the company:
We hear a lot about the semiconductor shortage, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Contract manufacturers can’t produce gaskets, vials, labels — you name it. I’ve seen cases where the inability to produce a single piece of U-shaped black plastic brought an entire auto line to a halt
Image Credits: Diamond Age
Rapid will be making its robotic systems available through the increasingly popular RaaS (robotics as a service) model also being employed by Diamond Age. The fellow Bay Area-based firm announced its own $8 million seed round this morning for an intriguing mix of robotics and 3D printing designed at speeding up house construction. The company is still in its early stages, but it claims its technology can dramatically reduce the need for manual labor and shrink house construction time from nine months to 30 days.
Image Credits: Picnic
Following its own recent funding back in May, Picnic this week announced that it’s finally selling its modular robotic pizza maker. Pizza is, of course, a popular target for food robotics companies, because Americans eat a ton of it — reportedly 100 acres a day, as of 2015. It’s also relatively uniformly constructed as far as self-contained meals go, and is therefore easier to automate.
Nuro team on test track during early validation in Arizona, before first-ever public road deployment in Arizona. Image Credits: Nuro
And speaking of pizza robots, before we leave you this week, a note to check out the EC-1 on Nuro. Here’s a fun anecdote from Domino’s chief innovation officer that seems to ring true across the robotic spectrum:
One of the things we laugh about is how customers constantly talk to the bot. It’s almost like they think it’s ‘Knight Rider.’ It’s very common for customers to thank it or say goodbye, which is great because that indicates we’re creating an engaging experience that they’re not frustrated by.
Bay Area-based Diamond Age this week announced that it has raised $8 million. The seed round is led by Prime Movers Lab and Alpaca VC and features a slew of additional firms, including Dolby Family Ventures, Calm Ventures, Gaingels, Towerview Ventures, GFA Venture Partners and Suffolk Construction.
The startup looks to put a slew of key emerging technologies to work in service of building houses with fewer workers in a significantly truncated time frame. Diamond Age claims that when, fully realized, its tech will be able to reduce manual human labor by 55% and shrink the construction time on a single family home from nine months to 30 days. Part of this funding will go toward putting the processes in place to construct a 1,100-square-foot “demonstration house” as proof of concept.
“We need to build high-quality affordable single-family homes for the next generation striving for the American dream,” co-founder and CEO Jack Oslan said in a release, “and the only way we can solve this problem is with automation.”
Specifically, the company relies on robotic and 3D printing solutions. The former involves a set of 26 different robotic arm attachments to assist with the construction. That tech is coupled with a gantry-based 3D printing technology designed to construct interior and exterior walls for the structure.
Specifically, the company is looking to target the housing crunch in its Bay Area backyard. The systems will be available to construction companies through a RaaS (robotics as a service) rental model. Pricing specifics for the system have not been revealed.
UiPath came seemingly out of nowhere in the last several years, going public last year in a successful IPO during which it raised over $527 million. It raised $2 billion in private money prior to that with its final private valuation coming in at an amazing $35 billion. UiPath CEO Daniel Dines will be joining us on a panel on automation at TC Sessions: Saas on October 27th.
The company has been able capture all this investor attention doing something called Robotic Process Automation, which provides a way to automate a series of highly mundane tasks. It has become quite popular, especially to help bring a level of automation to legacy systems that might not be able to handle more modern approaches to automation involving artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 2019 Gartner found that RPA was the fastest growing category in enterprise software.
In point of fact, UiPath didn’t actually come out of nowhere. It was founded in 2005 as a consulting company and transitioned to software over the years. The company took its first VC funding, a modest $1.5 million seed round in 2015, according to Crunchbase data.
Dines will be appearing on a panel discussing the role of automation in the enterprise. Certainly, the pandemic drove home the need for increased automation as masses of office workers moved to work from home, a trend that is likely to continue even after the pandemic slows.
As the RPA market leader, he is uniquely positioned to discuss how this software and other similar types will evolve in the coming years and how it could combine with related trends like no-code and process mapping. Dines will be joined on the panel by investor Laela Sturdy from Capital G and ServiceNow’s Dave Wright where they will discuss the state of the automation market, why it’s so hot and where the next opportunities could be.
In addition to our discussion with Dines, the conference will also include Databricks’ Ali Ghodsi, Salesforce’s Kathy Baxter and Puppet’s Abby Kearns, as well as investors Casey Aylward and Sarah Guo, among others. We hope you’ll join us. It’s going to be a stimulating day.
Buy your pass now to save up to $100. We can’t wait to see you in October!
Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: SaaS 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.
The push for renewable energy has brought offshore wind power to the forefront of many an energy company’s agenda, and that means taking a very close look at the ocean floor where the installations are to go. Fortunately Bedrock is here to drag that mapping process into the 21st century with its autonomous underwater vehicle and modern cloud-based data service.
The company aims to replace the standard “big ship with a big sonar” approach with a faster, smarter, more modern service, letting companies spin up regular super-accurate seafloor imagery as easily as they might spin up a few servers to host their website.
“We believe we’re the first cloud-native platform for seafloor data,” said Anthony DiMare, CEO and cofounder (with CTO Charlie Chiau) of Bedrock. “This is a big data problem — how would you design the systems to support that solution? We make it a modern data service, instead of like a huge marine operation — you’re not tied to this massive piece of infrastructure floating in the water. Everything from the way we move sonars around the ocean to the way we deliver the data to engineers has been rethought.”
The product Bedrock provides customers is high-resolution maps of the seafloor, made available via Mosaic, a familiar web service that does all the analysis and hosting for you — a big step forward for an industry where “data migration” still means “shipping a box of hard drives.”
Normally, DiMare explained, this data was collected, processed, and stored on the ships themselves. Since they were designed to do everything from harbor inspections to deep sea surveys, they couldn’t count on having a decent internet connection, and the data is useless in its raw form. Like any other bulky data, it needs to be visualized and put in context.
“These datasets are extremely large, tens of terabytes in size,” said DiMare. “Typical cloud systems aren’t the best way to manage 20,000 sonar files.”
The current market is more focused on detailed, near-shore data than the deep sea, since there’s a crush to take part in the growing wind energy market. This means that data is collected much closer to ordinary internet infrastructure and can be handed off for cloud-based processing and storage more easily than before. That in turn means the data can be processed and provided faster, just in time for demand to take off.
As DiMare explained, while there may have been a seafloor survey done in the last couple decades of a potential installation site, that’s only the first step. An initial mapping pass might have be made to confirm the years-old maps and add detail, then another for permitting, for environmental assessments, engineering, construction, and regular inspections. If this could be done with a turnkey automated process that produced even better results than crewed ships for less money, it’s a huge win for customers relying on old methods. And if the industry grows as expected to require more active monitoring of the seafloor along every U.S. coast, it’s a win for Bedrock as well, naturally.
To make this all happen, of course, you need a craft that can collect the data in the first place. “The AUV is a piece of technology we built solely to enable a data product,” said DiMare, but noted that, originally, “we didn’t want to do this.”
“We started to spec out what it looked like to use an off the shelf system,” he explained. “But if you want to build a hyper-scalable, very efficient system to get the best cost per square meter, you need a very specific set of features, certain sonars, the compute stack… by the time we listed all those we basically had a self-designed system. It’s faster, it’s more operationally flexible, you get better data quality, and you can do it more reliably.”
And amazingly, it doesn’t even need a boat — you can grab it from the back of a van and launch it from a pier or beach.
“From the very beginning one of the restrictions we put on ourselves was ‘no boats.’ And we need to be able to fly with this thing. That totally changed our approach,” said DiMare.
The AUV packs a lot into a small package, and while the sensor loadout is variable depending on the job, one aspect that defines the craft is its high-frequency sonar.
Sonars operate in a wide range of frequencies, from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands of hertz. Unfortunately that means that ocean-dwelling creatures, many of which can hear in that range, are inundated with background noise, sometimes to the point where it’s harmful or deters them from entering an area. Sonar operating about 200 kHz is safe for animals, but the high frequency means the signal attenuates more quickly, reducing the range to 50-75 meters.
That’s obviously worthless for a ship floating on the surface — much of what it needs to map is more than 75 meters deep. But if you could make a craft that always stayed within 50 meters of the seabed, it’s full of benefits. And that’s exactly what Bedrock’s AUV is designed to do.
The increased frequency of the sonar also means increased detail, so the picture its instruments paint is better than what you’d get with a larger wave. And because it’s safe to use around animals, you can skip the (very necessary but time-consuming) red tape at wildlife authorities. Better, faster, cheaper, and safer is a hell of a pitch.
Today marks the official launch of Mosaic, and to promote adoption Bedrock is offering 50 gigs of free storage — of any kind of compatible map data, since the platform is format-agnostic.
There’s a ton of data out there that’s technically “public” but is nevertheless very difficult to find and use. It may be a low-detail survey from two decades ago, or a hyper-specific scan of an area investigated by a research group, but if it were all in one place it would probably be a lot more useful, DiMare said.
“Ultimately we want to get where we can do the whole ocean on a yearly basis,” he concluded. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
When someone mentioned to me that Xiaomi was launching its own “robot dog,” my mind immediately went to Sony’s Aibo. And honestly, it would have been difficult to be more wrong. Now that the news has been out for a few days, the company’s heard all of your bad Black Mirror jokes, don’t worry.
And, honestly, the Chinese hardware maker didn’t do itself any favors with the design here. Boston Dynamics has done a lot to imbue its quadrupedal robots with personality, through design language and viral videos of Spot and company busting a move to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
With Cyberdog, however, Xiaomi’s design team clearly just leaned in and went full-on Robocop (and the Bladerunner pastiche doesn’t help) . I receive a deluge of Metalhead gifs every time I post something about Boston Dynamics — seriously, I’m using Cyberdog as the lead image on this post, just so you can see what I mean. Go check the replies on Twitter. I’ll wait.
Image Credits: Xiaomi
Xiaomi is, of course, far from the first company to release a Spot-like quadrupedal robot. There are a number of companies competing in that space, including ANYmal and Ghost Robotics. For its part, Xiaomi is looking to put a developer spin on the category. Per the Mi blog:
CyberDog is Xiaomi’s first foray into quadruped robotics for the open source community and developers worldwide. Robotics enthusiasts interested in CyberDog can compete or co-create with other like-minded Xiaomi Fans, together propelling the development and potential of quadruped robots.
Image Credits: Xiaomi
The robot is powered by Nvidia’s Jetson Xavier NX platform, coupled with 11-built in sensors, including cameras, touch, GPS and more. The company will be release 1,000 of the robots, price at roughly $1,540 — a fraction of the cost of the advanced Spot system. The robot is also a fraction of the size of Boston Dynamics’ quadruped. And while there are superficial similarities the project really couldn’t be more different.
Xiaomi’s entry into robotics is more about building hardware for Nvidia’s platform. It’s a (relatively) inexpensive way for people to get a hang of programming and, perhaps, protoyping robotics. The likely limited functionality — and availability — are pretty clear indications that that the company’s not trying to put a Cyberdog in every home just yet.
Bear Flag Robotics
A sizable acquisition this week, John Deere announced plans to buy Bear Flag Robotics for $250 million. We’ve been following Bear Flag since it was a member of the YC cohort. The deal seems like a good outcome for both parties. Bear Flag gets a lot of resources from an agricultural giant like John Deere and Deere gets to step another foot into the world of cutting-edge tech with an autonomous tractor startup.
Says co-founder and CEO Igino Cafiero:
One of the biggest challenges farmers face today is the availability of skilled labor to execute time-sensitive operations that impact farming outcomes. Autonomy offers a safe and productive alternative to address that challenge head on. Bear Flag’s mission to increase global food production and reduce the cost of growing food through machine automation is aligned with Deere’s and we’re excited to join the Deere team to bring autonomy to more farms.
Image Credits: Kiwibot
Another startup we’ve been following since its early days, Kiwibot is seeing expansion to a significant number of campuses. In spite of campus shutdowns last year, the Berkeley-based company is actually seeing something of a boom due to the pandemic. COO Diego Varela Prada tells TechCrunch:
We have a procedure to disinfect the bots between orders. If you’re a student and you don’t want to mix into large crowds, I think it’s much safer to order food through Kiwibot and have it delivered to the library or your dorm.
We’ve written about Lidar company Aeva a few times over the years, including last November, when it announced plans to go public via SPAC. This week, the company announced a deal with Nikon that takes it beyond its existing automotive applications. The company says there are a slew of potential applications, though the chip is still about four years away from production. Fields include, “consumer electronics, consumer health, industrial robotics, and security.”
A whole bunch of robots are making their way to Florida late next year, courtesy of Amazon. The company announced this week that it has chosen Tallahassee (birthplace of T-Pain and objectively the best Mountain Goats album) as the home of its next fulfillment center. The company plans to add to its massive arm of warehouse robots for the 630,000-square-foot space, along with 1,000 human jobs.
Image Credits: Berkshire Grey
FedEx, meanwhile, has implemented Berkshire Grey robotics at a shipping facility in Queens (the best borough). The systems will identity, pick, sort, collected and containerize primarily small packages like polybags, tubes and padded mailers. The systems are set to roll out to additional locations, including Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio. Says B.G.,
This technology has been developed and installed as a direct response to the exponential growth of e-commerce, which has accelerated the demand for reliable automated solutions throughout all stages of the supply chain. FedEx Ground believes that continued innovation and automation will improve safety, efficiency, and productivity for its team members as they continue to keep the e-commerce supply chain moving.
Image Credits: Hyphen
Here’s a new company in the food space worth keeping an eye on. Formerly known as Ono Food Co. (then a food truck company), SF-based Hyphen has come out of stealth with the announcement of its Makeline automated meal platform. The company says the system is able to create up to 350 meals an hour, with the aid of a single staff member.
“[W]e really see ourselves like Shopify,” CEO Stephen Klein said in a release, “but instead of enabling merchants to compete with the likes of Amazon, we’re enabling restaurants to compete with the likes of DoorDash as well as other services and ghost kitchens that have decided to compete with their own customers by offering their own food brands.”
The platform is set to start rolling out this winter with plans for 300 locations in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix.
Amazon’s $1.5 billion air cargo hub in Northern Kentucky opened Wednesday, the latest effort by the e-commerce giant to connect a network of 40 sites and control all aspects of delivery as demand for speed and convenience accelerates.
The Amazon Air Hub operations, located at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, will be the center of its U.S. cargo network. The hub opened after more than four years of planning and construction. Amazon said the U.S. hub will eventually operate a dozen flights per day and process millions of packages every week.
The hub is comprised of an 800,000-square-foot sortation building located on a 600-acre campus that includes seven buildings, a new ramp for aircraft parking and a multistory vehicle parking structure.
Amazon said that eventually more than 2,000 people will be employed there. The air hub will also rely on robotics technology, specifically robotic arms to move and sort packages and mobile drive units to transport packages across the building.
Amazon Air launched in 2016 and has grown into a network of more than 40 locations. Last year, Amazon Air launched its European air hub at Germany’s Leipzig/Halle Airport, a 215,000-square-foot facility that hosts two Amazon-branded Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
Amazon Air also has regional air hubs at airports in Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida in the U.S., and plans to expand to San Bernardino International Airport in California and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2021.
Starship Technologies, an autonomous delivery services company, announced that it will begin delivery service on four additional college campuses this fall, adding to the 20 campuses on which it already operates.
The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), the University of Kentucky (UK), the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida campus will all be graced with the Estonian-born company’s little six-wheeled, zero-emissions delivery robots.
This announcement comes the same day as Kiwibot, another autonomous sidewalk delivery robot company, has partnered with hospitality giant Sodexo to bring food delivery to college campuses. Whereas Kiwibot will focus more on delivering food from dining halls and university stores, it looks like Starship will work with on-campus merchants like Starbucks, Panda Express and Panera Bread, among others. Despite the different approaches, the outcome is the same: Delivery companies are preparing for a more “normal” school year, even though the Delta variant continues to ramp up case loads. That could either be a blessing or a problem for the Starships and Kiwibots of the world. On the one hand, more ‘Rona means more students staying inside and avoiding other humans. On the other, it could also mean school shutdowns and a bunch of useless bots.
“We see the Starship robots as an important part of safely bringing students back to campus,” said Dean Kennedy, executive director of residential life, housing and food services at UNR, in a statement. “Everyone wants to resume in-person classes and be back on campus so we’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s done responsibly. The robots offer several advantages – they make social distancing easier, they are convenient, the students we have spoken with love this idea and they continue our heritage of being an innovative campus.”
UIC will have 25 Starship robots and UNR and Embry-Riddle will get 20 robots each, all of which add to Starship’s fleet of over 1,000 delivery robots. The company says it has completed more than 1.5 million rides since its founding in 2014. It has raised a total of $102 million, including its recent $17 million funding round.
“We’ve worked hard to become a trusted and integrated partner on our campus communities and that hard work has paid off,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship, in a statement. “We are continuing to add new schools every semester, with more to be announced this fall. The students love the robots and the schools appreciate the ability to offer this service. We can’t wait to meet the students at each of these schools and look forward to hiring students on all of the campuses to give them real world experience working with robots and AI.”
Students and faculty will be able to download the Starship Food Delivery app to choose meals and then drop a pin where they want their delivery to be sent. They can track the robot or they can wait for an alert to go outside and meet the robot once it has arrived, where they can then unlock it through the app. Starship says it aims to train and hire students at local campuses who are interested in joining the team and learning more about autonomous technology.
Kiwibot, the robotic sidewalk delivery startup, has announced a partnership with food services and facilities management giant Sodexo to bring its robots to U.S. college campuses. As of this month, students and faculty at New Mexico State University, Loyola Marymount University and Gonzaga University should have the option to order fresh meals via cute little robots from Sodexo-serviced locations on campuses.
This is not the first time Kiwibot is delivering food for over-caffeinated, hungover, exhausted college kids. Its robots, which are designed to look adorable and can move at around two miles per hour, were born at the University of Berkeley, California. There, the company was able to rack up 150,000 deliveries and prove its use case for expansion to other campuses, like the University of Denver and Stanford University.
Sodexo provides the food for the cafeterias and dining halls of hundreds of colleges across the U.S., so this partnership could prove to be massively fruitful for Kiwibot. It’ll need the boost in order to keep up with its main competition, Starship Technologies, which completed one million delivery rides in January and operates in many college campuses, as well.
Campuses are often a natural choice for startups in autonomous development. Not only are universities open to experimenting with new ideas, but given the unit economics on a campus, the revenue growth prospects are more favorable than working B2B in a city, says Diego Varela Prada, chief operating officer at Kiwibot.
“Additionally, university campuses provide an advantage as they tend to be a more controlled environment than public streets in regards to things such as public infrastructure complexity and car traffic and congestion,” Prada told TechCrunch.
As part of the partnership, students will be able to use their meal plans for Kiwibot delivery through their Sodexo Bite+ app. Those without a meal plan can pay à la carte, including $2 flat fee plus 10% of the order amount.
“We’re starting with 10 bots at Loyola, 10 bots at Gonzaga and 30 bots at New Mexico State, and that’s just the beginning,” said Prada. “We’re hoping to have many more. As a B2B business, we’re able to work very closely with our partner to increase the capacity of the bots as demand ramps up.”
Last year, many college campuses were forced to shut down amid the pandemic. Now, as school is about to be in session again, the U.S. is experiencing the highest caseload since February, averaging about 100,000 new cases every day. There’s no telling what kinds of shutdowns or lockdowns we’ll see on college campuses this year, but Prada sees Kiwibot providing an avenue for students to order food safely.
“We have a procedure to disinfect the bots between orders,” he said. “If you’re a student and you don’t want to mix into large crowds, I think it’s much safer to order food through Kiwibot and have it delivered to the library or your dorm.”
Prada says Kiwibot’s robots, which are in their fourth generation, are advancing to Level 4 autonomy, but are currently at Level 3. The Society of Automotive Engineers describes both Levels 3 and 4 as a full self-driving system, but with Level 3, a human operator may be required to take over if there’s an issue, whereas a Level 4 system is expected to handle all driving on its own.
“We have a feature that’s called corner-to-corner, and so what that does is it captures data around an indoor space and feeds that into an algorithm that basically makes decisions for the bot,” said Prada. “It handles the navigation for the robot in between high complexity situations, like cars, people, pets, little kids, people that work on campus. So we are not in a position yet to let the bot go on the campus on its own. Our remote operators have a feature where they switch to corner-to-corner and if the bot senses, for example, a street pass, then the remote operator or supervisor will take over.”
The engineers at Kiwibot are working on getting a bot to navigate indoor-to-outdoor and outdoor-to-indoor, so that it can pick up orders in a kitchen, go outside to deliver it and then navigate inside a building so that it can deliver an order to someone’s room or desk.