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Today — July 14th 2020Your RSS feeds

Hello Robot emerges out of stealth to launch a mobile robotic gripping platform for the home

By Brian Heater

This is Stretch — or, more precisely, the Stretch Research Edition. The name certainly conveys the tall, skinny and minimalist design of the home helper robot. Stretch is different and somehow familiar, with a straightforward technical design that adapts a number of standard robotic elements designed to offer a versatile machine that’s capable of navigating a house and getting out of the way when necessary.

It’s the first product out of Bay Area-based Hello Robot. Fresh out of three years operating in stealth, the company was founded by CEO Aaron Edsinger, a Georgia Tech product who was previously the director of Robotics at Google after its acquisition of his company, Redwood Robotics, in 2013.

Image Credits: Hello Robot

Stretch is still in quite early stages. At $17,950, it’s really more of a developer platform at the moment, but it’s easy to see how the company could ultimately spin it into something more commercial, with the right software. “Subsequent editions of Stretch will likely be targeted more directly at commercial applications,” says Edsinger, “but at this point we’re focused on providing the best customer experience possible with the Research Edition.” In addition to a gripper, the robot also sports a 3D camera and range finder for navigating and an on-board computer. On the software side, it uses a combination of ROS and Python.

It’s an open-sourced platform, designed to help robotics develop a unique range of potentially useful tasks for the home and retail setting.

Image Credits: Hello Robot

“What sets this robot apart is its extraordinary reach — which is why we named it Stretch,” Edsinger, says in a release. “Its patent pending design makes possible a range of applications such as assisting an older parent at home, stocking grocery shelves, and wiping down potentially infectious surfaces at the workplace. We see Stretch as a game-changing platform for researchers and developers who will create this future.”

Again, this is all still quite early. Hello Robot is still a small team — with a headcount of fewer than 10 employees at the moment. Thus far, the startup has been completely bootstrapped. Edsinger tells TechCrunch, “based on customer response so far we expect to have a healthy and profitable business.”

White Castle becomes the first fast food chain to test out the robot fry cook, Flippy, from Miso Robotics

By Jonathan Shieber

The next time Harold and Kumar go to a White Castle, there may be a robot making their French Fries.

In one of the first trials of a robotic fry cook at a national burger chain, White Castle said it would work with Pasadena, Calif.-based Miso Robotics to test that company’s robotic chef at a restaurant in the Chicago area. It’s a  trial run for potentially bringing the robot to other White Castle kitchens across the country, the company said.

White Castle first began talking about using the Miso Robotics robots in its kitchens about nine months ago according to White Castle’s vice president of shareholder relations, Jamie Richardson. For the company, it was a question of, “How can we start to make the kitchen of tomorrow today?” 

Already a success on social media, where videos of Miso Robotics’ Flippy robot have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, White Castle was intrigued about the prospects of a burger flipping, chicken, onion, and french frying robot in its locations, Richardson said.

“I think automation is here to stay and this is the first example of a really large credible player starting down that journey,” said Miso Robotics chief executive Buck Jordan of the new collaboration with White Castle. 

White Castle has a fairly interesting track record when it comes to working with startups. The company was the first fast food chain to embrace Impossible Foods for its sliders.

At an undisclosed restaurant in the Chicago area, Miso Robotics is already working to install the latest version of its Flippy robot. The robotic fry cook will be integrated with the company’s point of sale system so that the robot can begin preparation as soon as an order is taken at the register.

That first robot will be coming online in September, according to Richardson.

And Richardson said that White Castle employees don’t need to worry about a robot coming for all of their jobs… yet. 

“It’s going to save us money in food costs because there will be less waste,” said Richardson.  “The other savings will be in terms of output… that’s going to be helpful.. If you maintain speed of service that’s getting a little bit better and a little better you do see more visits… that’s where we see it having the biggest impact… we’re not looking at this as a way to reduce people power.” 

A typical installation of a Miso Robotics system in a kitchen would cost a restaurant $30,000 upfront and then another $15,000 per year. However, with White Castle, the terms (which were undisclosed) were a little different.

Jordan said the goal is to bring the cost of the robotic system down to $15,000 for the entire system, obviating the need for any upfront costs, and convincing restaurants and franchisors that the robot can pay for itself right out of the gate.

There’s a clear path to getting that down to 20K,” said Jordan. “I’m trying to chisel that down to 15K,… at that kind of price and these things have lifetimes of seven to ten years we can afford to take the loss upfront.”

The robots have taken on new significance in the post COVID-19 era as restaurants like White Castle become essential services even as they struggle to keep the lights on with fewer customers. 

At White Castle that meant pay cuts for executives in order to retain staff. “We cut a lot of investment and we didn’t want to lose one job,” Richardson said. However, even with the strategic cuts, the implementation of at least this first robotic system remained a priority.

“There were things that we thought, COVID or no COVID were important,” Richardson said. “This project falls under that banner.”

White Castle’s decision to pilot Flippy in the kitchen creates an avenue for reduced human contact with food during the cooking process – reducing potential for transmission of food pathogens. The implementation also brings intelligence to cooking, tapping into sensors, intelligent monitoring and anticipated kitchen needs to keep food temperatures consistent, that ensure optimal quality and a perfect bite for customers. With Flippy in the kitchen automating repetitive, time consuming and dangerous tasks like frying, team members can be redeployed to more customer-experience driven tasks.

Image Credit: Miso Robotics

Yesterday — July 13th 2020Your RSS feeds

Autonomous drone startup Skydio raises $100 million and launches the X2 commercial drone

By Darrell Etherington

Skydio has raised a $100 million Series C funding round, which was led by Next47 and includes participation from other new investors Levitate Capital and NTT DOCOMO Ventures, as well as existing investors a16z, IVP and Playground. This new funding will help the drone maker move faster on its product development efforts, and expand its go-to-market strategy to cover not only consumer applications, but also enterprise and public sector drone technology, the company says. To serve the market, Skydio also launched the X2 family of drone hardware today, which is designed for commercial use.

Founded in 2014, Skydio has raised $170 million total and launched two consumer-focused drones to date, both of which employ artificial intelligence technology to give them autonomous navigation capabilities. This means their drones can actively track objects and people, while simultaneously avoiding potential collisions with objects, including trees, power lines and other obstacles. The end result is video that looks like it was recorded by a professional film crew in a helicopter, but available to the general consumer market in a sub-$1,000 price point.

The first Skydio drone, the R1, was launched in 2018, and retailed for $2,499. Its intelligence and tracking capabilities were impressive, and were later improved via software updates and the second-generation hardware, which launched last year and is currently available for order.

Skydio’s new X2 drone platform is designed for enterprise use, and will ship in Q4 of this year, according to the company. It includes an onboard 360-degree superzoom camera, a FLIR 320×256 resolution thermal imaging camera, a battery life of 35 minutes of flying time and a maximum range of 6.2 miles. There’s also a Skydio Enterprise Controller for the drone, which has a touchscreen, hardware controls and a protective hood to block glare.

The move from consumer to enterprise makes a lot of sense for Skydio; the same collision avoidance features and easy piloting for which the company has received praise in the consumer world are very applicable in enterprise use. The company says that its close-proximity avoidance tech, which allows for very tight tolerances in flight, make it a great candidate for doing things like remote infrastructure and equipment inspection, where having a person do those would be dangerous or impossible.

X2 can also capture 180-degree images directly above itself, which makes it uniquely capable of inspecting bridge spans and other overhead construction from a different perspective than is offered by many rotor-drones like this one. And the infrared coverage means it can operate day and night, and provide heat-maps of targets.

Skydio will still serve the consumer market as well, but this progression throughout its brief history is likely a very attractive one for investors: The company went from an expensive, but highly capable, consumer product accessible only to a few individuals, to a much more accessibly priced but still high-tech offering, and now appears to be turning the economies it has realized in its tech to the potentially much more lucrative enterprise hardware and software arena.

MIT creates a soft-fingered robotic gripper than could eventually tie knots and sew stitches

By Darrell Etherington

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) has shared the results of a new project in which it built a two-fingered robotic gripper, which has soft pads for dedicated and fine manipulation of objects like cables, sheets and more. The robot’s design is based on how humans use their fingers to do things like untangle wires and tie knots.

To do this, the CSAIL research team equipped their robotic gripper with fingertips that are not only made out of a soft material, but that also have embedded sensors which help it continually detect the position of a cable between the grippers to better control holding and manipulating them while performing simple tasks like detangling.

The fingertip sensors provide high-resolution tactile information, using so-called “GelSight” technology that embeds tiny cameras in soft rubber. These sensors provide data on how the cable is situated between the two ‘fingers’ of the gripper, and on how much force is being exerted on the cable in terms of friction as it moves between the pads. This allows it to change its pose and grip depending on what’s needed to get the cable into the position you want – an approximated version of what we’re doing when we work with cables or cords.

The CSAIL team, led by MIT post-doc student Yu She, was able to demonstrate the gripper following a USB cable along its length from any random starting holding position, and could also work its way down the length of a cable with a ‘hand-over-hand’ motion when working in tandem with a second gripper, in order to find the end of the cable. The system demonstrated its ability to work across different types of cables, including different materials and lengths.

CSAIL’s system managed to perform a task that is very commonplace for us, but that poses a significant challenge or a robot – plugging a set of earbuds into a phone’s stereo headphone jack. It may not seem like much, but it opens the door for building out the technology to perform ever more sophisticated tasks, including doing things like folding cloth, tying knots, and ultimately even potentially sewing sutures to close wounds during medical procedures.

The goal, according to She, is to create a robot that can handle this delicate work in order to provide a safe alternative when having a human do the same would be potentially dangerous, as well as “repetitive” or “dull.” Like many robotics endeavors, you can see how creating a robot that can handle this kind of work could free up human time to focus on more complex or advanced tasks.

The team intends to look at applications in the auto industry first – a good target not only because automation is already a key part of automotive manufacture, but also because wiring and threading cables represents a significant portion of remaining manual work in car production.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

As pandemic drags on, interest in automation surges

By Brian Heater

Today, the U.S. exceeded three million COVID-19 cases and 132,000 deaths. In several states, new hotspots have rolled back plans to reopen businesses. The novel coronavirus has — and will continue — to profoundly impact the way we live and work.

For the moment, that includes a shift in the employment status of many Americans. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And while many states have made efforts to reopen businesses and return some sense of normality, these moves have led to a spike in cases and may prolong the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact.

Technology has been a lifeline for many, from food delivery to the 3D printing I highlighted last week, which has worked to address a nation suffering from personal protective equipment shortages. Automation and robotics have also been a constant in conversations around tech’s battle against COVID-19.

Robots don’t get sick, tired or emotionally burnt out, and unlike us, they aren’t walking, talking disease vectors. Automation advocates like to point to the “three Ds” of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that will eventually be replaced by a robotic workforce, but in the age of COVID-19, nearly any essential job qualifies.

The robotic invasion has already begun in earnest. The service, delivery, health care and sanitation industries in particular have all opened a massive gap over the past several months that automation has been more than happy to roll right through. A recent report from The Brookings Institute notes that automation arrives in the workforce in fits and starts — most notably, during times of economic downturn.

“Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the study found. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”

Garry Kasparov on AI: ‘People always called me an optimist’

By Ron Miller

Garry Kasparov is a political activist who’s written books and articles on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and online privacy, but he’s best known for being the former World Chess Champion who took on the IBM computer known as Big Blue in the mid-1990s.

I spoke to Kasparov before a speaking engagement at the Collision Conference last month where he was participating in his role as Avast Security Ambassador. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from his role as security ambassador to the role of AI.

TechCrunch: How did you become a security ambassador for Avast?

Garry Kasparov: It started almost by accident. I was invited by one of my friends, who knew the previous Avast CEO (Vince Steckler) to be the guest speaker at the opening of their new headquarters in Prague. I met the team and very quickly we recognized that we could work together very effectively since Avast wanted an ambassador.

I thought that it would be a great combination because it’s about cybersecurity, and it’s also about customers, about individual rights, which is related to human rights, and it also had a little bit of a political element of course. But most importantly, it’s a combination of privacy and security and I felt that with my record of working for human rights, and also writing about individuals and privacy and also having some experience with computers, that it would be a good match.

Now it’s my fourth year and it seems that many of the things we have been discussing at conferences when I have spoken about the role of AI in our lives, and many of the discussions that we thought were theoretical, have become more practical.

What were those discussions like?

One of the favorite topics that was always raised at these conferences is whether AI will be a helping hand or threat. And my view has been that it’s neither because I have always said that AI was neither a magic wand nor a Terminator. It’s a tool. And it’s up to us to find the best way of using it and applying its enormous power to our good.

Watch an army of Spot and Pepper robots cheerlead a baseball game in an empty stadium

By Brian Heater

NPB games are known for engaging antics that extend well beyond the play on the field. But what’s to be done in the era of COVID-19 when baseball is played in front of an empty stadium? For many — including Korea’s KBO League and the upcoming shortened MLB season — cardboard cutouts are an attempt to bring something familiar to the otherwise surreal experience.

Japan, on the other hand, is leaning into the surreality. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are getting some cheerleading help from a couple of familiar robots. Softbank’s own Pepper and Spot (of the Softbank-owned Boston Dynamics) formed the cheering section at a game this week, as the NPB team took on the Rakuten Eagles. The celebration is the first of many, running through the end of the month.

It is, as Softbank Notes, “the first time that Spot has performed a dance at a sports event.” Boston Dynamics’ robot has taken on a number of jobs of late, as the company has offered the quadruped up for sale — a first in its 25+ year history. Construction and security are among the key uses for the ‘bot, though Softbank is obviously equally interested in putting on a show. Pepper, the product of Softbank’s 2015 acquisition of  Aldebaran Robotics, meanwhile, has become a familiar sight in the hospitality industry.

本日のヒーローたち!(笑)#sbhawks https://t.co/W5qgspsBO0

— 福岡ソフトバンクホークス(公式) (@HAWKS_official) July 7, 2020

When the shortened MLB season kicks off in States later this month, many teams will be filling stands with cardboard cutouts. The Oakland A’s, notably, announced a plan to charge fans to have their likeness appear on the life-size cardboard facades.

High Earth Orbit Robotics uses imaging satellites to provide on-demand check-ups for other satellites

By Darrell Etherington

Maintaining satellites on orbit and ensuring they make full use of their operational lifespan has never been more important, given concerns around sustainable operations in an increasingly crowded orbital environment. As companies tighten their belts financially to deal with the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19, too, it’s more important than ever for in-space assets to live up to their max potential. A startup called High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics has a very clever solution that makes use of existing satellites to provide monitoring services for others, generating revenue from unused Earth imaging satellite time and providing a valuable maintenance service all at the same time.

HEO’s model employs cameras already on orbit mounted on Earth observation satellites operated by partner companies, and tasks them with collecting images of the satellites of its customers, who are looking to ensure their spacecraft are in good working order, oriented in the correct way, and with all their payloads properly deployed. Onboard instrumentation can provide satellite operators with a lot of diagnostic information, but sometimes there are problems only external photography can properly identify, or that require confirmation or further detail to resolve.

The beauty of HEO’s model is that it’s truly a win for all involved; Earth observation satellites generally aren’t in use at all times – they have considerable down time in particular when they’re over open water, for instance, HEO’s founder and CEO William Crowe tells me.

“We try to use the satellites at otherwise low-value times, like when they are over the ocean (which of course is most of the time),” Crowe said via email. “We also task our partners just like we would as a regular Earth-imaging business, specifying an area on Earth’s surface to image, the exception being that there is always a spacecraft in the field-of-view.”

The company is early on in its trajectory, but it has just released a proof-of-concept capture of the International Space Station, as seen in the slides provided by HEO below. The image was captured by a satellite owned by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, which is operated by commercial satellite operator SI Imaging Services. HEO’s software compensated for the relative velocity of the satellite to the ISS, which was a very fast 10 km/s (around 6.2 miles per second). The company says it’s working towards getting even higher-resolution images.

[gallery ids="2012500,2012501,2012502"]

The beauty of HEO’s model is that it actually requires no capital expenditure to work, in terms of the satellites used: Crowe explained that they currently pay-per-use, which means they only spend when they have a client request, so that the revenue covers the cost of tasking the partner satellite. HEO does plan to launch its own satellites in the “medium-term,” however, Crowe said, in order to cover the gaps that currently exist in coverage and in anticipation of an explosion in the low Earth orbit satellite population, which is expected to expand from the existing 2,000 or so spacecraft to as many as 100,000 or more over roughly the next decade.

HEO could ultimately provide imaging of not only other satellites, but also space debris to help with removal efforts, and even asteroids that could prove potential targets for mining and resource gathering. It’s a remarkably well-considered idea that stands to benefit from the explosion of growth in the orbital satellite industry, and also stands out among space startups because it has a near-term path to revenue that doesn’t require a massive outlay of capital up front.

Festo’s latest biomimetic robots are a flying feathered bird and ball-bottomed helper arm

By Devin Coldewey

You could be excused for thinking that German robotics company Festo does nothing but put together fabulous prototype robots built to resemble kangaroos, jellyfish, and other living things. They do in fact actually make real industrial robots, but it’s hard not to marvel at their biomimetic experiments; Case in point, the feathered BionicSwift and absurd BionicMobileAssistant motile arm.

Festo already has a flying bird robot — I wrote about it almost 10 years ago. They even made a flying bat as a follow-up. But the BionicSwift is more impressive than both because, in an effort to more closely resemble its avian inspiration, it flies using artificial feathers.

Image Credits: Festo

“The individual lamellae [i.e. feathers] are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model,” Festo writes in its description of the robot.

The articulating lamellae allow the wing to work like a bird’s, forming a powerful scoop on the downstroke to push against the air, but separating on the upstroke to produce less resistance. Everything is controlled on-board, including the indoor positioning system that the bird was ostensibly built to demonstrate. Flocks of BionicSwifts can fly in close quarters and avoid each other using an ultra wideband setup.

Festo’s BionicMobileAssistant seems like it would be more practical, and in a way it is, but not by much. The robot is basically an arm emerging from a wheeled base — or rather a balled one. The spherical bottom is driven by three “omniwheels,” letting it move easily in any direction while minimizing its footprint.

The hand is a showcase of modern robotic gripper design, with all kinds of state of the art tech packed in there — but the result is less than the sum of its parts. What makes a robotic hand good these days is less that it has a hundred sensors in the palm and fingers and huge motility for its thumb, but rather intelligence about what it is gripping. An unadorned pincer may be a better “hand” than one that looks like the real thing because of the software that backs it up.

Not to mention the spherical movement strategy makes for something of an unstable base. It’s telling that the robot is transporting scarves and not plates of food or parts.

Of course, it’s silly to criticize such a machine, which is aspirational rather than practical. But it’s important to understand that these fascinating creations from Festo are hints at a possible future more than anything.

TuSimple seeking $250 million in new funding to scale self-driving trucks

By Kirsten Korosec

TuSimple, the self-driving truck startup backed by Sina, Nvidia, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation, is headed back into the marketplace in search of new capital from investors. The company has hired investment bank Morgan Stanley to help it raise $250 million, according to multiple sources familiar with the effort.

Morgan Stanley has sent potential investors an informational packet, viewed by TechCrunch, that provides a snapshot of the company and an overview of its business model, as well as a pitch on why the company is poised to succeed — all standard fare for companies seeking investors.

TuSimple declined to comment.

The search for new capital comes as TuSimple pushes to ramp up amid an increasingly crowded pool of potential rivals.

TuSimple is a unique animal in the niche category of self-driving trucks. It was founded in 2015 at a time when most of the attention and capital in the autonomous vehicle industry was focused on passenger cars, and more specifically robotaxis.

Autonomous trucking existed in relative obscurity until high-profile engineers from Google launched Otto, a self-driving truck startup that was quickly acquired by Uber in August 2016. Startups Embark and the now defunct Starsky Robotics also launched in 2016. Meanwhile, TuSimple quietly scaled. In late 2017, TuSimple raised $55 million with plans to use those funds to scale up testing to two full truck fleets in China and the U.S. By 2018, TuSimple started testing on public roads, beginning with a 120-mile highway stretch between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona and another segment in Shanghai.

Others have emerged in the past two years, including Ike Robotics and Kodiak Robotics. Even Waymo is pursuing self-driving trucks. Waymo has talked about trucks since at least 2017, but its self-driving trucks division began noticeably ramping up operations after April 2019, when it hired more than a dozen engineers and the former CEO of failed consumer robotics startup Anki Robotics. More recently, Amazon-backed Aurora has stepped into trucks.

TuSimple stands out for a number of reasons. It has managed to raise $298 million with a valuation of more than $1 billion, putting it into unicorn status. It has a large workforce and well-known partners like UPS. It also has R&D centers and testing operations in China and the United States. TuSimple’s research and development occurs in Beijing and San Diego. It has test centers in Shanghai and Tucson, Arizona.

Its ties to, and operations in China can be viewed as a benefit or a potential risk due to the current tensions with the U.S. Some of TuSimple’s earliest investors are from China, as well as its founding team. Sina, operator of China’s biggest microblogging site Weibo, is one of TuSimple’s earliest investors. Composite Capital, a Hong Kong-based investment firm and previous investor, is also an investor.

In recent years, the company has worked to diversify its investor base, bringing in established North American players. UPS, which is a customer, took a minority stake in TuSimple in 2019. The company announced it added about $120 million to a Series D funding round led by Sina. The round included new participants, such as CDH Investments, Lavender Capital and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation.

TuSimple has continued to scale its operations. As of March 2020, the company was making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

Mail.ru co-founder Dmitry Grishin has a new $100 million fund; he offers a look here

By Connie Loizos

Grishin Robotics is an eight-year-old, Sand Hill Road venture firm that until now, has focused exclusively on the smart hardware industry. A newly closed $100 million fund will see it widen its aperture a bit, however, to include online gaming and interactive entertainment, productivity tools, and education.

It only makes sense, says firm founder Dmitry Grishin, who is also cofounder and chairman of the Russian internet and gaming company Mail.ru Group. Grishin, like the rest of the world, has seen what people can accomplish from their homes during this pandemic — and how they’ve managed to remain entertained. He doesn’t think these lessons will vanish even when the world returns to its pre-COVID 19 state.

He seemingly has a knack for identifying interesting trends, with exits that include the smart-doorbell startup Ring, sold to Amazon in 2018 for $1 billion; the mesh WiFi router company eero, sold to Amazon for $97 million in 2019; and scooter-sharing firm Spin, acquired by Ford Motor Co. for $100 million, also in 2018.

We talked with him earlier this week about what, more precisely, has his nine-person firm excited right now. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length.

TC: You’ve historically focused on the U.S., with some coverage in Europe and an office in London. Where did you wind up investing your last fund — a $100 million vehicle that you closed in 2016?

DG: We’re mostly focused on the U.S. and Bay Area, though we have a few deals on the East Coast. We want to continue what we’re doing, but the idea is while we started in robotics hardware and IT,  we want extend [our scope to include]  online gaming and some kind of physical-to-digital gaming because we’re seeing people saying home more and wanting devices in their home to engage with. The co founder of “Guitar Hero” [Kai Huang, who technically cofounded its video game publisher, RedOctane ] is now a senior advisor to our fund, too.

I’m very excited about gaming. I was gamer all my life, and I have two small kids, and there’s a lot to be done — not just on the iPad but in a way that incorporates the physical [world], too.

TC: As with the Nintendo Wii?

DG: Well, with the Wii, you mostly stayed in front of a TV. With this next generation of games, you can teach someone in connected way. For example, you’re now seeing huge growth in board games, with people [rediscovering them during lockdown]. If you can combine these games with digital [components]. . .

TC: You were a Series A investor in the scooter company Spin, now sold to Ford. Do you think the standalone scooter companies can make it? The pandemic has obviously decimated their businesses. Think they will fully rebound? 

DG: There’s a lot of debate in terms of what happens for a lot of sharing-economy companies. Maybe it will take time for people to come back to scooters but I do think we need personal mobility and some solutions [toward that end.] I do think that, like mobile operators, you maybe can’t have five companies but more like two or three. The same is true of food delivery [because of the margins].

TC: Mate Rimac, who founded the car company Rimac Automobili, has been called the Elon Musk of Croatia. You know the hardware space as well as anyone. Who are other some other founders — far-flung or nearby — who you know to be superstars but who are perhaps undiscovered or underestimated?

DG: Jamie [Siminoff] of Ring is amazing.

TC: Is he still at Amazon or has he started something new?

DG: I think he’s still at Amazon but I hope he’s working on cool stuff. I also think the founders of [our portfolio company] Starship Robotics are really interesting guys.

TC: These are the last-mile delivery robots that looks like small refrigerators on wheels.

DG: The whole idea that food delivery should be done by robots, I’m a big believer in that happening. There has been huge interest in them over the last few months; you’ll see the more at hospital and university and corporate campuses.

TC: How many startups did you invest in through your last fund and which one received the most money?

DG: We had 17 or 18 and Spin was one of them that received the most money.

TC: Your new fund is the same size. Will check sizes also remain unchanged?

DG: We want to keep pretty much the same, meaning seed and Series A stage companies in which we invest $3 million to $6 million — somewhere in this range. Especially right now what’s interesting in the current environment is that you can combine a lot of digital products: gaming, online education, food delivery. We’re definitely seeing some interesting models.

TC: You mentioned combining the digital with the physical in terms of games. How interested are you in augmented reality? Obviously, Magic Leap burned up a lot of cash, trying to create a holographic display that people would love.

DG: We looked at the space for some time and longer term, I think it will happen. One of the most important takeaways as an investor is to be careful not just about the big trends but timing. If you think about the dotcom era, all of those businesses [that went belly up] exist now: pet products delivery, food delivery. So i think long term, we’ll see a lot of interesting options, but only once you have 10 or 20 million active devices. That will be the tipping point for [AR and VR], but it has to make sense. There has to be good, high-quality games [to attract customers].

TC: What’s among your newest investments that has you excited?

DG: Ziva Dynamics based in Canada. Its software was used to animate the dragons in “Game of Thrones.” It’s really cool software for building the next generation of animation. You can now animate almost all dogs, dragons. These are tools that was available only for studios previously. It also has amazing founders.

TC: Have you funded any founders who you haven’t met in person over the last few months?

DG: Not yet, but as a company, as a team, we are spending more time on Zoom. [Regarding investments], we try to do many more reference calls. I think we’ll maybe [always] spend more time on Zoom now and maybe in the final stages, we’ll meet with a team.

TC: Have you noticed any other trends in recent months while we’ve all been working from home?

DG:  I have noticed more founders actively trying to reach out to VCs. We’re seeing more inbound interest before from founders who want to proactively build relationships and maybe secure extra runway because their fundraising process was delayed or something else happened.  A lot of founders, too, say, ‘I have maybe six months of runway, but maybe I need to fundraise earlier.’ That behavior is happening.

And I see a lot of startups pivoting to hot areas, including online education. Definitely, some teams are open to pursuing new areas that they weren’t before.

TC: You mentioned that online education is a greater area of interest now. How has your experience been with your kids in recent months, with schools and most activities closed? 

DG: Remote education for young kids is a disaster, in my experience. I’ve been trying to manage myself and my kids and [it hasn’t gone well]. I do think there are a lot of opportunities in online education if you’re based in India or Europe and want to watch lectures at Harvard and Stanford. But young people need physical opportunities [that online schooling doesn’t provide].

We have discussions with a lot of founders about remote work, and sometimes it’s not about business, it’s more about personality. Some people really like to be on computer all day; others are extroverts who want to be with. people all day. For them, this has been really tough.

Geek+, the Amazon Kiva of China, lands $200 million Series C

By Rita Liao

Geek+, a Beijing-based startup that makes warehouse fulfillment robots similar to those of Amazon’s Kiva, said Thursday that it has closed over $200 million in a Series C funding round.

That bumps total capital raised by the 5-year-old company to date to nearly $390 million. The new round, completed in two parts, was separately led by GGV Capital and D1 Capital Partners in the summer of 2019, and V Fund earlier this year. Other participants included Warburg Pincus, Redview Capital and Vertex Ventures.

The company said it will continue to develop robotics solutions tailored to logistics, ramp up its robot-as-a-service monetization model, and expand partnerships.

Geek+ represents a rank of Chinese robotics solution providers that are increasingly appealing to clients around the world. The startup itself boasts over 10,000 robots deployed worldwide, serving 300 customers and projects in over 20 countries.

Just last month, Geek+ announced a partnership with Conveyco, an order fulfillment and distribution center system integrator operating in North America, to distribute its autonomous mobile robots (ARMs) across the continent. Leading this part of its business is Mark Messina, the startup’s chief operating officer for the Americas who previously worked at Amazon, where he oversaw mechanical engineering for the Kiva robotics system.

Geek+’s ambitious move overseas came amid continuous pressure from the Trump administration to boycott Chinese tech players. Back home, Geek+ has worked closely with retail giants such as Alibaba and Suning to replace human pickers in warehouses.

Software will reshape our world in the next decade

By Walter Thompson
Alfred Chuang Contributor
Alfred Chuang is general partner at Race Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm.

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

Freedom launches Pilot to simplify teleoperation on third-party robots

By Brian Heater

We knew remotely operated robotics were going to have their moment soon enough — but few predicted how much the category would be forced to accelerate in 2020. It’s true that many of the pieces were already in place, including the technology and the desire to innovate, but a global pandemic turned out to be the secret sauce here. Anything companies can do to remove potential human contamination from the process is going to move to the top of the list.

The timing is certainly perfect for Bay Area-based Freedom Robotics. Back in July of last year, the startup announced a $6.6 million raise. More recently, co-founder and CEO Joshua Wilson joined myself and Nvidia’s Claire Delaunay onstage at TechCrunch’s robotics event in March. Off-stage, Wilson showed me software Freedom had been developing: a solution designed to make remote operation a plug and play process for robotics companies.

Image Credits: Freedom Robotics

That software was Pilot. The company is finally ready to discuss it in full, just as many companies are getting really serious about remote operations. The secret sauce here is simplicity, allowing for a wide range of different robotics form factors to create remote operations on various devices, including smartphones, laptops and tablets. Freedom says they’ll be able to do it with a single line of code. What’s more, inexperienced operators should be able to control the robots almost instantly.

“COVID has accelerated robotics deployments by five years, co-founder and CTO Hans Lee tells TechCrunch. “People need robots today and our robotics customers can’t keep up with the demand to build them. We are seeing a ton of longer-term robotics platforms in development pivot to launching in less than 60 days with a significantly simpler system and with humans in the loop. It has really reinforced the value of our Pilot feature and we are excited to be helping make hospitals, streets, agriculture and other areas significantly safer during COVID.”

A number of robotics companies are already utilizing the tech, including Bangalore’s Invento Robotics and UCLA spin-off Cyan Robotics. Along with teleoperations, the company is pitching the technology as a stepping stone toward full autonomy. Key applications at the moment are delivery and warehouse robotics, both of which are in high-demand during the pandemic. 

 

“Commercial cleaning robots are now narrowly targeted at sanitizing. In agriculture – vegetable and fruit picking labor shortages have become national news – there is limited time until harvest,” Freedom’s head of robotics Steve Hansen tells TechCrunch. “What we’re seeing is people who previously had longer, more elaborate plans to build out automation systems are coming to us looking to ship their robots quicker with remote teleoperators as a backstop and are in need of dev tools they can use to tune and fix their robots literally in the fields.”

Image Credits: Freedom Robotics

“Pilot features allow you to ship these robots now and fill in the gaps of bugs and missing features with human operators as you scale each deployment,” Freedom writes. “You can also supplement your autonomous capabilities with a human backstop to make tough decisions and add in human-level intelligence before algorithms are fully tuned. By rethinking things to include remote human operators in the mix, you can be on the fastest path to a fully autonomous system that meets your customers’ needs and also positively impacts the world.”

Freedom is currently offering free trial accounts for Pilot that includes one year for one robot. There’s a tiered pricing structure beyond that. 

Qualcomm’s new robotics development platform is 5G-enabled

By Brian Heater

Qualcomm this morning just announced the latest version of its robotics development platform. The chipmaking giant is skipping a number, following up last year’s RB3 platform with the Robotics RB5 — which seems to signify, among other things, the key embrace of 5G connectivity this time out.

The next-generation wireless technology has been seen as a key enabler of IoT products and robotics alike, bringing a new level of high speed wireless across a broad spectrum of connected devices. No wonder, then, that Qualcomm is pushing hard here. The system also supports 4G, just in case.

Qualcomm is one of a number of operators looking to get in on the ground level of third-party robotics development. Perhaps most notable among the company’s competition is NVIDIA’s ISAAC platform. But Qualcomm certainly has a lot going for it from the standpoint of components, with a depth of knowledge in connectivity, processing power and AI. It also has a number of high-profile partners already developing for the new platform, including  Intel, Panasonic, AirMap, SLAMCORE and ROS gatekeepers, Open Robotics.

The system will support a number of third-party components, including Intel’s RealSense depth camera and Panasonic’s TOF (time-of-flight) camera. There are currently more than 20 early adopters to the new platform, with the first commercial products expected to be released before the end of the year.

Swarms of autonomous insect robots could prove key to future planetary exploration

By Darrell Etherington

While we’re preparing to launch a six-wheeled robotic rover roughly the size of a car to explore Mars, future planetary exploration and science missions could employ much smaller hardware – including, potentially swarms of robots the size of insects designed to act in concert with one another autonomously.

Swarming insect-like robots are being developed by a number of different institutions and companies, but a researcher at California State University Northridge recently received a sizeable Department of Defense grant specially to fund the development of autonomous robot swarms for extraterrestrial applications – as well as for use right here on Earth in mining, industrial and search and rescue efforts.

The grant, for $539,000, was awarded to CSUN mechanical engineering professor Nhut Ho, who also directs the NASA Autonomous Research Center for STEAMH (which focuses on collaborative research efforts between Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts, Humanities and Mathematics academics, hence the acronym). The goal of the research is to build robotic swarms that can essentially be dropped into unknown and hostile environments, and then figure out how to complete specific tasks they’re given without essentially any additional input.

Ultimately, such a swarm would be able to perform complex problem solving to deal with challenges, including organizing themselves into different sized groups to handle different aspects of the task at hand, as well as dealing with setbacks including losing individual members of the swarm through redundancy and repurposing.

One way the system will be tested is through use with a collaborating team from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that seeks to find the best solutions for autonomously navigating and mapping underground environments.

As for why this approach is even being considered, there are a lot of potential benefits of using a swarm of small rovers vs. a single, large one. At a very basic level, there’s built-in redundancy – if a rover like NASA’s Perseverance encounters a fatal error, the mission is essentially done, while a swarm losing individual members shouldn’t end the entire mission. Also, a swarm can self-assemble into individual subunits and cover more ground more quickly, accomplishing a number of goals in parallel where a larger rover might have to handle tasks in sequence.

CSUN is working with partners including JPL, as mentioned, as well as Boston Dynamics, Intel, Clearpath Robotics, Telerob, Veoldyne and Silvus Technologies on its swarm project. It could be a while before any insect bots actually set ‘foot’ on the red planet, but this is definitely a strong sign of interest and support from large, deep-pocketed public funding sources.

OTTO Motors raises $29M to fill factories with autonomous delivery robots

By Kirsten Korosec

When Clearpath Robotics CEO and co-founder Matthew Rendall looks at the “miles” of roads inside industrial factories, he sees them filled with autonomous vehicles.

And in the past five years, the company has inched toward that goal through its industrial division OTTO Motors. The division, which launched in 2015, has landed a number of customer contracts to bring its autonomous mobile robot platform into factories, including GE, Toyota, Nestlé and Berry Global.

OTTO Motors is preparing to expand with a fresh injection of $29 million in funding. The Series C funding round announced this week was led by led by Kensington Private Equity Fund, with participation from Bank of Montreal Capital Partners, Export Development Canada (EDC) and previous investors iNovia Capital and RRE Ventures . To date, the company has raised $83 million in funding.

OTTO Motors’ autonomous mobile robot platform, or AMRs, are used to handle materials within warehouses and factories. These robots, which were once viewed as a luxury, are now a necessity, according to Rendall, who believes the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for companies to enhance work safety will only accelerate the trend toward robots.

Robots, and more broadly automation, are often viewed as job killers in manufacturing. But Rendall argues that AMRs help fill roles that are currently sitting vacant and allow humans to take on the higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs.

“We tend to see more situations where the operation is not at peak output, not operating peak performance because they just can’t find the people,” Rendall said in a recent interview, noting that one of its customer shut down an entire wing of its facility because they just can’t get people.

Factories are often located near smaller towns or sprawling communities with a limited labor pool, a shortfall that can be compounded when Amazon opens up a facility nearby.

“There’s a kind of vacuum that pulls qualified talent out of the established manufacturing or warehouse base,” he said.

A 2018 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute forecast that a skills gap is projected to leave 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028 in the United States. The skills gap has popped up in other countries where OTTO Motors is now focused, including Japan, where the aging population is larger than the younger generation. Even China, which has historically been viewed as a place with an expanding labor pool, now has a national robotics strategy, Rendall said.

The company developed its AMRs to help manufacturers outsource the lower-value tasks to robots. “One of the least valuable things you can pay your people to do is walk from Point A to Point B,” Rendall said. “If you’re strapped for talent you want to have that team focused on what is at Point A or at Point B, like assembling an automobile. Walking to a warehouse with a part is something that can be outsourced to a machine.”

OTTO Motors’ initial customer base grew out of the automotive and transportation industries. It now works with six of the 10 OEMs. But Rendall says it has also seen success in the medical device and healthcare sector, as well.

COVID-19 has spurred demand, Rendall said, as essential businesses in the food, beverage and medical device industries attempt to lessen risks associated with the disease.

Robotics startup lets machines get closer as humans keep their distance

By Walter Thompson
Kyle S. Gibson Contributor
Kyle S. Gibson is a writer and videographer in Boston, currently focused on robotics and industrial internet of things. Kyle has worked for publishers AmericanInno and MIT Technology Review, sales automation developer Pegasystems, and blockchain strategy group New Alchemy. He is currently writing for MIT Horizon, an emerging technology education platform. His work is supported by a regional awareness initiative of the New England Venture Capital Association.

As humans get used to working at a distance from each other, a startup in Massachusetts is providing sensors that bring industrial robots in close —  centimeters away, in fact. The same technology may support future social distancing efforts on commutes, in a pilot application to allow more subway trains to run on a single track.

Humatics, an MIT spinout backed by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, makes sensors that enable fast-moving and powerful robots to work alongside humans without accidents. If daily work and personal travel to work ever go back to normal, the company believes the same precision can improve aging and crowded infrastructure, enabling trains and buses to run closer together, even as we all may have to get used to working further apart.

This is the emerging field of microlocation robotics — devices and software that help people and machines navigate collaboratively. Humatics has been testing its technology with New York’s MTA since 2018, and today is tracking five miles of a New York subway, showing the transportation authority where six of its trains are, down to the centimeter.

UWB sensors for microlocation

Humatics’ technology in the MTA pilot uses ultrawide band (UWB) radio frequencies, which are less failure-prone than Wi-Fi, GPS and cameras.

“A good example of a harsh environment is a subway tunnel,” said David Mindell, co-founder of Humatics and professor of engineering and aerospace at MIT. “They are full of dust, the temperatures can range from subzero to 100 degrees, and there is the risk of animals or people tampering with devices. Working inside these tunnels is difficult and potentially dangerous for crews, also.”

Humatics has sold more than 10,000 UWB radio beacons, the base unit for their real-time tracking system, to manufacturers of sensor systems, the company says. They pinpoint the location of hundreds of RFID tags at a range of 500 meters, using multiple tags on an object to measure orientation.

Self-driving vehicle startup Argo AI completes $2.6B deal with Volkswagen, expands to Europe

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen Group finalized Tuesday its $2.6 billion investment into Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving car startup that came out of stealth in 2017 with $1 billion in backing from Ford.

The deal turns Argo into a global company with two customers — VW and Ford — as well as operations in the U.S. and Europe and an instant jump in its workforce. Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group, will be absorbed into Argo AI. AID’s Munich offices will become Argo’s European headquarters.

That integration, which can begin now that the deal has closed, will expand Argo’s workforce to more than 1,000 people. Argo also has offices in Detroit, Palo Alto, and Cranbury, New Jersey. The company has fleets of autonomous vehicles mapping and testing on public roads in Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. That mission now expands to VW. Ford and VW will share the cost of developing Argo AI’s self-driving vehicle technology under the terms of the deal.

“Building a safe, scalable and trusted self-driving service, however, is no small task. It’s also not a cheap one,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC CEO John Lawler said in a blog post.

Two years ago, Ford said it would spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC houses the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams.

Lawler emphasized that “sharing development costs” doesn’t mean Ford is reducing its overall spend in autonomous vehicles. Instead, the company said it will reallocate money towards development of transportation as a service software and fleet operations for its eventual self-driving service.

Despite this shared investment, Ford and VW will not collaborate on the actual self-driving vehicle service.

Lawler, who is also vice president of mobility partnerships at Ford, said the U.S. automaker “will remain independent and fiercely competitive in building its own self-driving service.”

Argo’s board will now be comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.

Jeremy Conrad left his own VC firm to start a company, and investors like what he’s building

By Connie Loizos

When this editor first met Jeremy Conrad, it was in 2014, at the 8,000-square-foot former fish factory that was home to Lemnos, a hardware-focused venture firm that Conrad had cofounded three years earlier.

Conrad —  who as a mechanical engineering undergrad at MIT worked on self driving cars, drones and satellites — was still excited about investing in hardware startups, having just closed a small new fund even while hardware was very unfashionable. One investment his team had made around that time was in Airware, a company that made subscription-based software for drones and attracted meaningful buzz and $118 million in venture funding before abruptly shutting down in 2018.

For his part, Conrad had already moved on, deciding in late 2017 that one of the many nascent teams that was camping out at Lemnos was on to a big idea relating the future of construction. Conrad didn’t have a background in real estate per se or even an earlier interest in the industry. But the “more I learned about it — not dissimilar to when I started Lemnos — It felt like there was a gap in the market, an opportunity that people were missing,” says Conrad from his home in San Francisco, where he has hunkered down throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Enter Quartz, Conrad’s now 1.5-year-old, 14-person company, which quietly announced $7.75 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Baseline Ventures, with Felicis Ventures, Lemnos and Bloomberg Beta also participating.

What it’s selling to real estate developers, project managers and construction supervisors is really two things, which is safety and information. Using off-the-shelf hardware components that are reassembled in San Francisco and hardened (meaning secured to reduce vulnerabilities), the company incorporates its machine-learning software into this camera-based platform, then mounts the system onto cranes a construction sites. From there, the system streams 4K live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, while also making sense of the action.

Say dozens of concrete pouring trucks are expected on a construction site. The cameras, with their persistent view, can convey through a dashboard system whether and when the trucks have arrived and how many, says Conrad. It can determine how many people on are on a job site, and whether other deliveries have been made, even if not with a high degree of specificity. “We can’t say [to project managers] that 1,000 screws were delivered, but we can let them know whether the boxes they were expecting were delivered and where they were left,” he explains.

It’s an especially appealing proposition in the age of coronavirus, as the technology can help convey information that’s happening at a site that’s been shut down, or even how closely employees are gathered. Conrad says the technology also saves on time by providing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it. Think of the developer who is on the 50th floor of the skyscraper he or she is building, or even the crane operator who is perhaps moving a two-ton object and has to rely on someone on the ground to deliver directions but can enjoy far more visibility with the aid of a multi-camera set-up.

Quartz, which today operates in California but is embarking on a nationwide rollout, was largely inspired by what Conrad was seeing in the world of self-driving. From sensors to self-perception systems, he knew the technologies would be even easier to deploy at construction sites, and he believed it could make them safer, too. Indeed, like cars, construction sites are astonishingly dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of the worker fatalities in private industry in 2018, more than 20% were in construction.

Conrad also saw an opportunity to take on established companies like Trimble, a 42-year-old, publicly traded, Sunnyvale, Ca.-based company that sells a portfolio of tools to the construction industry and charges top dollar for them, too. (Quartz is currently charging $2,000 per month per construction site for its series of cameras, their installation, a livestream and “lookback” data, though this may well rise at its adds additional features.)

It’s a big enough opportunity in fact, that Quartz is not alone in chasing it. Last summer, for example, Versatile, an Israeli-based startup with offices in San Francisco and New York City, raised $5.5 million in seed funding from Germany’s Robert Bosch Venture Capital and several other investors for a very similar platform,  though it uses sensors mounted under the hook of a crane to provide information about what’s happening. Construction Dive, a media property that’s dedicated to the industry, highlights many other, similar and competitive startups in the space, too.

Still, Quartz has Conrad, who isn’t just any founding CEO. Not only does he have that background in engineering, but having founded a venture firm and spent years as an investor may serve him well, too. He thinks a lot about the payback period on its hardware, for example.

Unlike a lot of founders, he also says he loves the fundraising process. “I get the highest quality feedback from some of the smartest people I know, which really helps focus your vision,” says Conrad, who says that Quartz, which operates in California today, is now embarking on a nationwide rollout.

“When you talk with great VCs, they ask great questions. For me, it’s best free consulting you can get.”

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