Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.
This morning was a notable one in the life of TechCrunch the publication, as our parent company’s parent company decided to sell our parent company to a different parent company. And now we’re to have to get new corporate IDs, again, as it appears that our new parent company’s parent company wants to rebrand our parent company. As Yahoo.
Anyway, a bunch of other stuff happened as well:
We’re back Wednesday with something special. Chat then!
Columbus, Ohio-based firm Path Robotics today announced the completion of a $56 million Series B. The round, led by Addition (featuring Drive Capital, Basis Set and Lemnos Lab) brings the robotic welding company’s total funding to $71 million.
Adding another piece to the broader automated manufacturing puzzle, the company is focused on robotic welding. The system uses scanning, computer vision and AI to adjust itself to different parts, understanding that sizing parts is a kind of imperfect science. Add to that the additional difficulty of working with highly reflective metals and you’ve got some interesting robotics problems to solve.
“Current industrial robotics have very little ability to understand their environment and the task at hand. Most robots merely repeat what they are told and have no ability to improve themselves,” CEO Andrew Lonsberry said in a release tied to the news. Our goal is to change this. The future of manufacturing hinges on highly capable robotics.”
The company says it’s looking to address a shortage in the welding workforce, which the American Welding Society says will experience a shortage of around 400,000 by 2024. The pandemic has also driven a number of companies to look for a more localized solution, apparently somewhat curbing the trend of offshoring the industry has seen in recent decades.
Some fun ones this week, so let’s get all of those pesky business transactions out of the way first, shall we? I mean, not that tens of millions of dollars changing hands for future robotics technology is boring, he said, tugging at his collar for comedic effect.
Image Credits: Plus One Robotics
Big raise this week for Plus One Robotics. The San Antonio-based company raised a healthy $33 million Series B, bringing its total funding above $40 million. The company mostly traffics in the warehouse and logistics space — obviously a category with a lot of excitement around it after last year’s massive shut down. As many companies have told me, most clients are simply looking for a way to help their footing in the competition against Amazon.
In addition to its massive headcount and seemingly bottomless resources, the e-commerce giant has deployed a huge army of robots in its warehouse. Plus One, for its part, doesn’t make the robots, but rather the vision software that works with them. The company’s product is designed to work across a broad range of robotic arms and grippers, allowing workers to control up to 50 systems at once.
Image Credits: Roam Robotics
We’ve talked about exoskeletons quite a bit on these pages, but Roam offers an interesting alternative to a number of bigger, bulkier and harder products on the market. The company’s latest device I liken to a standard knee brace, with AI and robotic capabilities that assist with movement. Specifically it helps with things like walking up stairs and standing up from a seated position.
And here we have a tiny tree man. Project Kiwi is kind of like Pinocchio if he really leaned into the whole wooden thing in the process of becoming a real boy. Obviously Disney’s going for the (sometimes) littlest Guardian of the Galaxy, Groot, for its latest extremely impressive animatronic.
Matthew was extremely impressed seeing the beautiful little tree guy in action and, living vicariously through some YouTube videos, I definitely have to confirm.
A fun bit of research out of Carnegie Mellon this week. The latest bit of biomimicry is a bit surprising. Obviously Cheetah has been a big inspiration for a number of quadrupedal robots (MIT in particular has a whole lot going in the Cheetah department). Specifically, though, the CMU researchers are looking at the big cat’s tail. Per CMU:
The cheetah’s lightweight furry tail is known as an aerodynamic drag tail; that is, it acts sort of like a parachute. Most robotic tails have high inertia, but the cheetah manages to retain low inertia. Inertia is a physical quality that describes an object’s resistance to changes in motion — high tail inertia means the tail can apply high forces. Aerodynamic tails instead use a different principle — aerodynamic drag — to achieve high forces without a large inertia.
Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress toward those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.
In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.
Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.
We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.
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We get up close with a robotic Groot, SpaceX has a successful astronaut launch and cryptocurrency prices tumble. This is your Daily Crunch for April 23, 2021.
The big story: Meet Disney Imagineering’s new robot
Disney Imagineering’s Project Kiwi represents a real robotics milestone — a free-walking robot that seems to fully capture the personality of the original character. In this case, the original is Groot, the beloved tree character from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
I’m not just saying that based on the demo video, either. Matthew Panzarino has seen Project Kiwi in person and reports:
The pint-sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize.
Startups, funding and venture capital
SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time — This was SpaceX’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA.
Hyundai invests in teleoperations startup Ottopia as part of $9M round — Ottopia’s first product is a universal teleoperation platform that allows a human operator to monitor and control any type of vehicle from thousands of miles away.
Introvoke raises $2.7M to power online events that can be embedded anywhere — While there’s been plenty of attention and money lavished on virtual event platforms over the past year, Introvoke co-founder and CEO Oana Manolache predicted that we’re only at the beginning of a “third wave of digital transformation.”
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
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(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
Crypto market takes a dive with Bitcoin leading the way — Cryptocurrency prices continued to tumble today, with Bitcoin leading the charge.
India restricts American Express from adding new customers for violating data storage rules — In a statement, the Reserve Bank of India said existing customers of either of the two card companies (American Express and Diners Club) will not be impacted by the new order, which goes into effect May 1.
Just one week left to save $100 on TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing & Fundraising — Get ready to join your community of early-inning startup founders for a two-day bootcamp July 8-9.
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The black curtain pulls aside and a character straight out of the movies waves hello. This is not an uncommon occurrence when I’m around Imagineers, but this time is special. The character isn’t a costume, it’s a robot. And, unlike the many animatronic figures you’ve seen in the parks, it’s not stuck in one place. No, this character is walking towards me, attached only by a thin cable used for programming.
The gait is smooth, the arms swing in a lifelike manner and the feet plant realistically. The body sways exactly as you’d expect it to. There’s no other way to say it, it’s ambling. This is Project Kiwi, a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor — the first of its kind for Disney and a real robotics milestone.
The holy grail of themed entertainment has been established for decades now: a fully mobile, bipedal character that matches the appearance, personality and scale of the original. Various non-mobile levels of this vision have been achieved at parks around the world, including the incredibly lifelike Na’Vi Shaman, The A1000 figure that powers characters like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’s Hondo Ohnaka and the smoothly expressive Belle from Beauty and the Beast at Tokyo Disneyland. There have also been some cool mobile experiments like the self-piloting droid “Jake”.
The pint sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize. This is a real, walk around character that is at the proper scale, kid scale.
A couple of weeks ago at Walt Disney Imagineering in Southern California, I saw just how close they finally are to making that dream come true. A bipedal platform, developed completely in house over the past 3 years by WDI researchers and roboticists — dressed up to look like a roughly two and a half foot tall Groot.
Even though the version of Kiwi that I’m looking at is Groot-flavored, it’s important to stress that this is a platform first and foremost, which means that it could take this form when it gets to the parks, or another form entirely. It’s important while developing a character to have a target character that can tell you whether or not you’re hitting an established mark of believability.
Kiwi is also is still very much a work in progress. I wouldn’t expect to see this in the wild soon, there is still a lot of work to be done on the way that Kiwi works and interacts with people and WDI does not have immediate plans to put it in the parks.
But even at this stage it’s an incredible feat of engineering that genuinely radiates that elusive characteristic that Disney always searches for with its figures: presence.
How did we get here?
I was able to speak to the lead on Project Kiwi, R&D Imagineer Principal Scott LaValley as well as Advanced Development Studio Executive SVP Jon Snoddy about how the platform came together over the past few years.
“Project KIWI started about three years ago to figure out how we can bring our smaller characters to life at their actual scale in authentic ways,” LaValley says. “It’s an exciting time for bipedal robotics and with an incredible team and our combination of technology, artistry, and magic, we are bringing characters to life that could not have happened anywhere but Disney.”
I’ve talked a bit about the unique Imagineering process in my previous pieces on how Disney builds reactive robotics, autonomous stuntbots and even entire lands. Imagineering works a lot like a startup in the way that it comes up with a problem to solve and then goes about pulling in other departments to help it get a solution. There is a remarkably ego-free nature to much of the way that WDI actually finds those solutions, too. They are as likely to find a key component off the shelf as they are to design, develop and patent it in house.
The interconnected nature of Imagineering departments like ride design, show systems, special effects, animatronics department, Tech Studio R&D and Disney Research means that they share solutions across the stack as well.
The guiding thread to all of it, of course, is storytelling. This guiding force exists at all levels of the process, keeping the project moving in the right direction — towards a better way to tell stories and transport guests.
With Kiwi, the end goal was clear, a character that could walk on its own and interact with park guests. Unfortunately, due to the scale and complexity of the figure and the requirements for interaction and walking, no ‘off the shelf’ platforms would do. The fact is that there are actually only a handful of truly viable bipedal robotics platforms anywhere in the world and the vast majority of them are being created for industrial applications, with a handful of ‘human-scale’ solutions that are designed as marketing set pieces rather than truly autonomous systems.
So to hit that goal, Imagineering turned to R&D and LaValley’s team. LaValley had come to Disney from Boston Dynamics, where he worked on the first version of its biped robot Atlas.
The project scope was that they needed a biped robot that was battery powered and could be programmed to handle autonomous interactions with park guests and striped gestures and emotes. The team would take the next 3 years to build what they needed — much of which was custom for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
It’s clear at a glance that Kiwi has no operator inside. The human brain is pretty good at instinctually understanding whether a space is just too small to have a person in it. In order to achieve the small size, the team had to first build a custom skeleton that had room for every motor and actuator Kiwi would need to achieve 50 degrees of freedom, all while keeping it humanoid in shape so that it could be ‘dressed up’ as any number of characters.
First came the frame. Prototypes were built from custom printed polymer and then eventually custom metal parts using industrial printers. The armatures and segments that they needed to house the critical components were just too complex to mill or cast. The cleverly printed metal skeleton is hollow throughout, allowing a ‘marrow conduit’ for air which rushes through the body cooling the motors and actuators. In the current Kiwi prototype the air comes in through the collar area of the suit, flows throughout the body, propelled by fans embedded in the skeleton and exhausts near the bottom of the unit. Eventually it will use the clothing as a shroud to help air flow out near the feet.
Though there is some audible noise, even in this early state it is very low, allowing audio playing out of a speaker to enable conversation.
As you can see in the exclusive progress video embedded above, the lower sections were built first. Early testing around the office shows the legs and torso sneaking, bouncing, shuffling and strutting through Imagineering. This is probably the only workplace in the world where the bottom half of a torso can tiptoe past your office while you’re eating lunch and it doesn’t even merit a pause between bites.
An enormous amount of completely custom robotics work went into the Kiwi platform. In the demonstration I saw, young Groot had a safety tether and control cable for live programming but nothing on the rig itself needed support, it was free roaming with on board battery power that LaValley says hits around the 45 minute mark currently with more longevity hoped for in the final version. In fact, a next-generation skeleton is already under development that is lighter and more efficient.
The legs use a system that offers a kinetic counter-balance, allowing the force of having to move and plant a foot to be off-set, making motions more power efficient and quicker. Think of a spring loaded heavy gate that makes it easier for you to swing open — but no springs, and a robotic limb instead of a gate.
The feet plant realistically for the very simple reason that they must actually support the figure. This gives it an additional layer of believability that just doesn’t happen with externally supported characters that “fake” a foot plant. LaValley demonstrated that the figure could easily stay afoot even if it was shoved gently or if a hand was rested on its shoulder. This kind of self-balancing is something that humans do unconsciously and continuously but it must be built and programmed in to an ambulatory robot.
Many patentable inventions went into this creation. One of them is a clever system of gears that translates energy across joints, allowing them to share motors with one another even across a joint like a knee or wrist. This means fewer components and the ability to keep motor and actuator packages small and compact enough to fit underneath theming.
In order to minimize the amount of wiring throughout Kiwi — since wires are always the biggest points of failure — the team created a set of origami-like circuit boards joined by integrated flex cabling. Think of your standard computer circuit board but sliced into segments and mounted to the exterior of the hollow ‘bones’. They wrap around the limbs and other body parts, binding the control systems and motors being controlled together into a local group that reduces the amount of harnessing that needs to be spread across joints and throughout the structure.
No actuators — the components that decide how to move a limb — that exist had the capabilities that the team needed, so they built them from scratch. At one point, LaValley handed me a ring holding iteration after iteration of a dozen actuator elements. I was holding years worth of engineering, experimentation, failure and progress on a simple bit of wire twisted together at the end.
Up next for Project Kiwi is a new set of actuators that can dynamically apply torque plus added sensing capabilities for more stability and reaction to uneven ground or interactions. You can imagine that, as a free roaming character people will want to take pictures with it and I doubt kids would be able to resist running up for a hug. The skeleton must be able to sense and react quickly and smoothly to those sudden external inputs in order to stay upright and keep looking natural.
Moving from a pure IK system to a fully torque sensing system will allow for the platform to make on the fly adjustments that compensate for terrain or interaction with other performers or guests.
All of the work the team put into custom gearing, motors and actuation has paid off in spades with the ridiculously smooth and natural looking movements of Kiwi’s arms and legs. Quick waves, shrugs, dance moves and even boxing jabs all look like a real — if slightly gentle — creature is performing them.
The team also demonstrated the custom built performance software that they designed which allows Kiwi to have different kinds of gaits with personality layered on top. The bottom layer is an IK-style gait system that keeps Kiwi upright and walking, but then layering the personalities on top adds character to the walk while still maintaining stability. Bouncy, jaunty walks, limps, sad or downhearted walks, all with the other motions of arms and head contributing to a constantly shifting center of mass and momentum. The paddling ducks feet under the water is that gait system that takes the external inputs and integrates it into the walk naturally.
The current prototype software has a series of set behaviors, with a timeline that allows them to program new behaviors and actions by toggles or adjusting curves that control movement. With a series of tweaks in the software the changes become evident immediately, with Groot’s “mood” becoming immediately evident in his walk.
One moment he is bouncing along swinging his arms jauntily, clearly happy to be there. Then the next moment his arms are slumped, his head is hung and he is slowly plodding — clearly sad to be leaving the fun behind. It’s a remarkable bit of performance software.
And even though the expressive eyes are already impressive — the team is not done. Up next on the agenda is a sensory package that allows Kiwi to more fully understand the world around it and to identify people and their faces. This becomes important because eye contact is such an emotive and powerful tool to use in transporting a participant.
Even without the sensing software I can tell you that the experience of this 2.5ft Groot locking eyes with me, smiling and waving was just incredibly transportive. Multiple times throughout my interaction I completely forgot that it was a robot at all.
As I mentioned at the top, the Project Kiwi platform still has a lot of work left to do before it makes any appearances in the parks. But it’s already well on the road to being viable for things like stage performances, photo ops and eventually free roaming deployment in the parks.
That is really the vision, Snoddy says that the goal is to move the characters we love from across Disney’s pantheon into the spaces of the guests, elevating the entirety of the park to a live transportive experience, rather than a single ride or dark room. And to do it at the proper scale to make them genuine and capable of making guests believe. With these kinds of platforms, the possibilities are there to make the entire parks themselves a living breathing home for the characters, rather than the tightly controlled environments of the rides themselves.
The arc of history in this Imagineering journeys is drawn in robots. From Great Moments with Mr Lincoln, to incredibly expressive characters like the Na’Vi Shaman anchored inside a dark ride, to characters that hold up in bright, well lit spaces. Project Kiwi is the next frontier, allowing them to step off of the pedestal and right into the world of the guest.
One of the most fascinating fields in robotics currently is HRI or human-robot interaction. This multidisciplinary effort to help humans and robots communicate better is often focused on safety and awareness in industrial settings. But I’ve long had that the most incredibly interesting work in this space is being done in Imagineering R&D. Over 100 million people pass through Disney’s parks per year, and the number of opportunities that they have to react to and interact with robotic characters grows yearly. And with projects like Kiwi on the horizon, this field is going to explode with new kinds of data and learnings.
And, of course, we’ll get to meet some of our favorite characters looking and acting as real as we’ve ever seen them in our world.
That thing I said the other week about robotics SPACs being relatively few and far between is becoming less and less true. It’s like someone walked down to the local robotics club, explained the admittedly somewhat convoluted methods around robotics mergers and the rest of the industry decided that they, too, wanted to get in on this action.
Joining the list that already includes warehouse automation firm Berkshire-Gray and exoskeleton company Sarcos is Vicarious Surgical. The surgical category is definitely one to keep an eye on going forward for these deals. Not only is it a massive industry with intricate and expensive procedures, it’s one that’s been proven out for several decades now, thanks in no small part to players like Intuitive, which received FDA approval more than 20 years ago for its da Vinci system.
Vicarious has been kicking around since 2015 and has raised $43.2 million to date. The company’s got some big names in its corner, including Bill Gates via the Gates Frontier Fund, as well as backing from the likes of Marc Benioff. The company utilizes virtual reality so surgical operations can be performed remotely. The SPAC deal values the firm at $1.1 billion and will net Vicarious up to $425 million.
Sizable round from Canvas last week, as well. No, not the autonomous cart company acquired by Amazon Robotics a couple of years back. The San Francisco-based robotic drywall startup raised a $24 million Series B. One of the most interesting things we’re seeing out of the robotics construction space isn’t just the potential size of the industry, but the breadth of applications. There are just so many different places where robotics and automation could play a key role in the future.
Image Credits: ANYbotics
One of the bigger surprises of the week is the commercial arrival of ANYbotics’ ANYmal robot. We’ve seen the quadrupedal robot in a number of different iterations over the years. The comparisons to Boston Dynamics’ Spot system is, of course, unavoidable, though the Swiss company has been working on their proprietary tech for several years now.
With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising that the first commercial application for the robot is similar to that of Spot. Specifically, it’s designed to patrol potentially unsafe working spaces, including electrical and industrial plants. ANYmal has a customizable array of sensors up top for visual and audio inspections, among others.
Image Credits: University of Tubingen
Here’s a neat project out of Germany’s University of Tubingen. Researchers designed a robot to mimic the movements of an elephant trunk. This early version is comprised of low-cost (and colorful) 3D-printed components that are capable of grasping a range of different objects. The group hopes to one day adapt the technology for industrial grasping applications.
We’ve covered Swiss robotics company ANYbotics with some regularity over the years. The company has offered its own take on the quadrupedal robotics space that has, naturally, drawn comparisons to Boston Dynamics’ Spot. Of course, as we noted earlier, the company’s take on the category has been in development for several years, so there may be a case of convergent evolution here.
Today the company announced that it’s ready to take ANYmal to the next level. ANYbotics is positioning its robot as a “end-to-end robotic inspection solution.” Specifically, the robot is designed to inspect places like energy and industrial plants, patrolling areas where it’s not ideal to have a human on-site, 24/7 — if at all.
Image Credits: ANYbotics
Mounted atop the robot is a customizable payload, featuring a number of different sensors for inspection, including visual, acoustic and thermal readings. The on-board camera features remote pan and tilt options for a better picture of an area.
The ANYmal is capable of walking up stairs and squeezing into areas that might otherwise be inaccessible for more traditional wheeled robotics. It can perform inspections autonomously and return to its charging dock when the battery is low.
The robot is currently in pilot deployment and the company has opened it up to preorders. It expects to start delivering units to customers in the second half of the year. The company is also offering a kind of on-boarding to get clients up to speed.
“Acting as a single point-of-contact, ANYbotics’ experts closely work with the customer in evaluating the tasks to be automated and prepare the organization for the deployment of autonomous mobile inspection robots,” it writes in a release. “The team checks the feasibility and impact in simulations, on-site demonstrations, and long-term pilot deployments. Once the implementation roadmap is established, the team trains the customer in commissioning and supports in scaling the system throughout their facilities.”
Some weeks are slim pickings when it comes to pulling together interesting robotics stories. This is, decidedly, not one of those weeks. In fact, it’s been a bit tough keeping up with the deluge of robotics activity over the past seven days. I’m going to take that very small sample size as purely anecdotal evidence that investment interest in the category is still white hot.
This is another one of those weeks where investment activity really spanned the entire range of robotics. Surgical, fulfilment and agriculture companies all received funding, along with some key partnerships in groceries and food delivery. All of that, plus underwater snake robots! What’s not to like?
Image Credits: Memic
We’ll start with this big Series D from Memic. Following its recent FDA authorization (a huge step for any medical robotics company), the surgical robotics company announced a $96 million raise led by Peregrine Ventures and Ceros. The round more than triples the company’s existing funding of $31.8 million. The Hominis platform is currently designed for transvaginal procedures, though the company is looking to expand to additional surgeries.
A much smaller round for a much newer company, Moray Media just announced a $5.7 million seed – a $3 million increase in the round it had reported earlier this year. The company’s Coral system is being designed for transcatheter mitral valve repair. Like many of these systems, the end goal is increasing the efficacy of procedures across a broad range of different operator skill sets.
Per co-founder and CEO Mark Barrish:
Our Coral platform is designed to empower interventionalists at all skill levels not only to carry out these procedures but also to do so in a cost-efficient manner, with the goal of making certain that millions of additional sick patients who cannot be currently treated will get the life-saving intervention they need.
Image Credits: Pickle
On the warehouse/fulfillment side, MIT startup Pickle came out of stealth this week, telling TechCrunch that it raised $5.75 million. Silly pun name aside (not to mention a robot called “Dill”), the company says its tech is capable of 1,600 box picks per hour, an impressive number it claims is “double the speed of any competitors.”
As the seed round suggests, we’re still in quite early stages here. Still, it all seems to have come together quite quickly for the company. It’s opening up preorders on its picking system in June and expects to start shipping in early 2022.
Speaking of picking systems, RightHand Robotics announced its third-gen robot. The autonomous system is designed to be faster and pick a wider range of products than its predecessor. The former is certainly a high bar. Speed has long been one of the company’s standouts. The increase is due, in part, to a faster GPU capable of processing data at 6x the speed.
Image Credits: Nuro
Two stories worth highlighting this week about robotics reaching a wider audience through service partnerships. On Monday, pizza giant Domino’s announced that it would be rolling out (so to speak) robotic delivery via a partnership with Nuro. Customers in Houston can get a pie delivered by the company’s R2 robot. Those buying pizza from the chain’s Woodland Heights location can actually specially request the ‘bot.
Image Credits: Kroger
Supermarket chain Kroger, meanwhile, is finally delivering on a deal with Ocado, opening a massive warehouse just outside of Cincinnati. The company says the 375,000-square-foot space will employ 1,000 robots alongside 400 human workers. The location will service around 20 brick-and-mortar stores in the area.
On the acquisitions side, indoor farming company AppHarvest announced its intent to buy Root AI. The $60 million deal finds AppHarvest picking up the Boston-based robotics startup with the intention of gaining access to the data gathering functionality of its crop harvesting tech.
“Farming as we’ve known it is broken because of the increasing number of variables such as extreme weather, droughts, fire and contamination by animals that make our food system unreliable,” AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb said. “Indoor farming solves for many of those challenges, and the data gathered can exponentially deliver more insights that help us predict and control crop quality and yield.”
Seattle-based Carbon Robotics this week announced a massive weeding robot. The Autonomous Weeder uses computer vision and lasers to get rid of some 100,000 weeds an hour. That certainly seems to fall under the “dull” distinction, and probably a nice win for farmers looking to eliminate undesired plants without the use of herbicides.
On the research side, it’s always fun to see when CMU figures out new uses for its long-standing snake robot. Seems like each time I visit the campus, they’ve cooked up something new, but I’m a little sad not to have seen the project’s newfangled swimming abilities in person. The team is looking to deploy the tech for inspections on hard to reach underwater surfaces like submarines and the bottoms of boats.
After inking a deal to work together almost three years ago, U.S. supermarket chain Kroger and U.K. online grocer Ocado today took the wraps off the first major product of that deal. Kroger has launched a new Ocado-powered customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, a gigantic warehouse covering 375,000 square feet and thousands of products for packing and delivering Kroger orders from online shoppers.
Built with a giant grid along the floor, “the shed”, as Ocado calls its warehouses, will feature some 1,000 robots alongside 400 human employees to pick, sort and move items. It is expected to process as much as $700 million in sales annually, the sales of 20 brick-and-mortar stores.
Those orders, in turn, will be delivered in temperature-controlled Kroger Delivery vans, built on the model of Ocado’s vans in the U.S. and able to store up to 20 orders. These will also be run using Ocado software, mapping algorithms to optimize deliveries along the fastest and most fuel-efficient routes.
Image Credits: Kroger
Kroger and Ocado’s partnership was a long time in the making, but the focus on what has come out of it is probably at its keenest right now, given the huge boost online shopping has had in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting push for more social distancing, has driven a lot of people to the internet to shop, opting for deliveries over physical store visits for some or all of their food and other weekly essentials.
That trend has also spelled more competition in the space, too: the likes of Amazon, Walmart, other traditional grocers getting their digital strategies in order and online players all are hoping for a piece of the market of consumers now ready to buy online.
That tide has also lifted Kroger’s boat. In a call today with journalists, Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO, said that delivery had grown 150% for Kroger last year.
While some of that may well melt back into physical shopping as and when COVID-19 cases wane (fingers crossed), many in the industry believe that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak: Many consumers introduced to shopping online will stay, at least in part, and so this is about building infrastructure to meet that new demand.
(And there is some data that backs that up: Ocado CEO and co-founder Tim Steiner noted that at Ocado, pre-pandemic the average order value for the company was £105 ($144). That grew to £180 last year, and is now at £120.)
Kroger, like many brick-and-mortar players, has been building out multiple fronts in its digital strategy. Alongside Ocado, the company has also been investing in technology to boost the efficiency of its in-store operations (for example, by working with companies like Shelf Engine), and it has a grocery delivery partnership with Instacart.
Kroger’s partnership with Instacart will remain in place, not least because it covers a much wider geography than the Ocado approach, which is live now in Cincinnati, and sounds like it will also expand to Florida. While Kroger today said that CFCs will vary in size and be built on the concept of “modules” (the Monroe facility is built on seven modules), this is still a capital intensive approach compared to the Instacart model, so might overall face a slower rollout and perhaps only make sense in Kroger’s denser markets.
“The two partnerships are critical to Kroger and our customers,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s CIO, in the call today. “We expect to work very closely in strategic partnership with Instacart and with Ocado.”
Ocado, an early player that started out in the U.K. back in 2000, is seen by many as the industry standard for how to build and run an online-only grocery business.
But rather than growing by taking its direct grocery business outside the U.K., the company has been expanding its reach by way of using the technology that it has built for itself and turning it into a product — a process that is still very much in development, with the company working now on robotic pickers and other autonomous systems, along with other technology to power and make its delivery service more efficient.
Ocado’s “AWS” strategy of turning tech that it has built for itself into a product to sell to others has born fruit: it now has partnerships to power online grocery services, and specifically fulfillment centers, in Japan (with Aeon), France (with Casino) and Canada (with Sobeys). That means the Kroger rollout is now a tested model, but it’s still a very notable move for the company to break into the U.S. while at the same time giving Kroger a much-needed bit of infrastructure to better compete with bigger players in the country like Walmart and Amazon.
In that regard, it will be interesting to see how and if Kroger leverages its much bigger Ocado-powered infrastructure for its other projects. The company is working with Mirakl to develop its own marketplace for third-party retailers, going head to head with similar offerings from — yes — Amazon and Walmart.
There’s no doubt this past year has been a major watershed moment for the robotics industry. Warehouse and logistics have been a particular target for an automation push, as companies have worked to keep the lights on amidst stay at home orders and other labor shortages.
MIT spinoff Pickle is one of the latest startups to enter the fray. The company launched with limited funding and a small team, though it’s recently changed one of these, telling TechCrunch this week that it has raised $5.57 million in funding during this hot investment streak. The seed round was led by Hyperplane and featured Third Kind Venture Capital and Version One Ventures, among others.
The company’s making some pretty big claims around the efficacy of its first robot named, get this, “Dill” (the company clearly can’t avoid a clever name). It says the robot is capable of 1,600 picks per hour from the back of a trailer, a figure it claims is “double the speed of any competitors.”
CEO Andrew Meyer says collaboration is a key to the company’s play. “We designed people into the system from the get-go and focused on a specific problem: package handling in the loading dock. We got out of the lab and put robots to work in real warehouses. We resisted the fool’s errand of trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised or solve every robotics problem out there.”
Orders for the first product targeted at trailer unloading will open in June, with an expected ship date of early 2022.
Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.
Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.
“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”
Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.
The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.
“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.
By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.
“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”
Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.
“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.
“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.
The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.
Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.
Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.
In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.
While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.
Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.
Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”
Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.
“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.
“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.
“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”
Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.
“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”
5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.
Before a startup can achieve product-market fit, founders must first listen to their customers, build what they require and fashion a business plan that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile. The numbers will tell the true story, but when it happens, you’ll feel it in your bones because sales will be good, customers will happy and revenue will growing.
Reaching that tipping point can be a slog, especially for first-time founders. To uncover some basic truths about building products, we spoke to three entrepreneurs who have each built more than one company:
First-time founders often try to build the product they think the market wants. That’s what Scratchpad co-founder Salehi did when he founded his previous startup PersistIQ. Before launching his latest venture, he took a different approach: Instead of plowing ahead with a product and adjusting after he got in front of customers, he decided to step back and figure out what his customers needed first.
“Tactically what we did differently at Scratchpad is we tried to be much more deliberate up front. And what that looked like was [ … ] to not start with building, even though the product is such an important part, but really step back and understand what we are doing here in the first place,” he said.
The snake robot has been something of an institution in the Carnegie Mellon robotics labs. Every time I visit the school, the biomimetic robot has seemingly learned a new trick. This week, the school announced it has added swimming to the list.
Testing actually began last month in one of CMU’s pools, with the snake robot outfitted with new housing designed for underwater navigation. Work on the project began last July. “I’m surprised that we made this robot work as fast as we did,” professor Howie Choset said in a release tied to the announcement. “The secret is the modularity and the people working on this technology at CMU.”
The Hardened Underwater Modular Robot Snake (HUMRS) was developed with a grant from the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute.
In its terrestrial version, the snake robot is notable for its ability to squeeze into tight spaces like pipes, which might otherwise be inaccessible for other more standard robotic form factors. Underwater, it serves a similar function. The project finds the team eyeing Defense Department usage — specifically the ability to inspect submarines, ships and other watercraft to detect damage.
Other nonmilitary applications include inspections for rigs and tanks, along with underwater pipes.
Memic, a startup developing a robotic-assisted surgical platform that recently received marketing authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, today announced that it has closed a $96 million Series D funding round. The round was led by Peregrine Ventures and Ceros, with participation from OurCrowd and Accelmed. The company plans to use the new funding to commercialize its platform in the U.S. and expand its marketing and sales efforts outside of the U.S., too.
The company previously raised a total amount of $31.8 million, according to Crunchbase, including about $12.5 million raised through crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd.
The Hominis, as the company calls its platform, has been authorized for use in “single site, natural orifice laparoscopic-assisted transvaginal benign surgical procedures including benign hysterectomy.” It’s worth noting that the robot doesn’t perform the surgery without human intervention. Instead, surgeons control the device — and its robotic arms — from a central console. The company notes that the instruments are meant to replicate the motions of the surgeon’s arms. And while it’s currently only authorized for this one specific type of procedure, Memic is looking at a wide range of other procedures where a system like this could be beneficial.
“The Hominis system represents a significant advancement in the growing multi-billion-dollar robotic surgery market. This financing positions us to accelerate our commercialization efforts and bring Hominis to both surgeons and patients in the months ahead,” said Dvir Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Memic.
It’s worth noting that there are a wide range of similar, computer-assisted surgical systems on the market already. Only last month, Asensus Surgical received FDA clearance for its laparoscopic platform to be used in general surgery, for example. Meanwhile, eye surgery robotics startup ForSight recently raised $10 million in seed funding for its platform.
Memic’s Hominis is the first robotic device approved for benign transvaginal procedures, though, and the company and its investors are surely betting on this being a first stepping stone to additional use cases over time.
“Given the broad potential of Hominis combined with a strong management team, we are proud to support Memic and execution of its bold vision,” said Eyal Lifschitz, managing general partner of Peregrine Ventures.
Starting this week, some Domino’s customers in Houston can have a pizza delivered without ever interacting with a human.
The pizza delivery giant said Monday it has partnered with autonomous delivery vehicle startup Nuro to allow select customers to have their pizzas dropped at their door via Nuro’s R2 robot.
“There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space,” Dennis Maloney, Domino’s senior vice president and chief innovation officer said in a statement. “This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations.”
On certain days and times, customers ordering from the Woodland Heights store on the Domino’s website can request R2, which uses radar, 360-degree cameras and thermal imaging to direct its movement. They’ll get texts to let them know where the robot is and what PIN they’ll need to access their pizza via the bot’s touchscreen.
Over the course of the pandemic, the contactless, autonomous food delivery industry has accelerated quickly, and Nuro is currently poised to become a leader in this space.
“Nuro’s mission is to better everyday life through robotics,” Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, said in a statement. “We’re excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino’s customers in Houston. We can’t wait to see what they think.”
This is the first time meals will be delivered by an electric, self-driving, occupant-less vehicle on the roads in Houston. Woodland Heights, which is mainly residential, is one of the oldest historic neighborhoods in Houston, flanked by the I-45 and I-10 highways. The Domino’s there is right on Houston Avenue, a main thoroughfare, making this a substantially challenging space in which to pilot this technology.
Nuro originally announced the Domino’s partnership and began testing in Houston in 2019. That same year, the company began deploying its vehicles to transport Kroger groceries in Houston and Phoenix. At the end of 2020, it was approved to begin testing on public roads in California, delivering goods from partners like Walmart and CVS. Nuro is the first company to be granted regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation for a self-driving vehicle exemption.
Domino’s appears to be Nuro’s first large foray into restaurant delivery, but it certainly won’t be the last. The company just announced its $500 million Series C round, funded in part by Chipotle. Woven Capital, the investment arm of Toyota’s innovation-focused subsidiary Woven Planet, also invested, kicking off the fund’s portfolio.
Indoor farming company AppHarvest this week announced that it has acquired Root AI. The deal is valued at around $60 million, with $10 million in cash and the reminder coming from AppHarvest stock.
Root AI is a Boston-based robotics startup, with a mission fairly in line with that of its future parent company. We’ve covered the startup a handful of times, including last August, when it announced a $7.2 million seed round. Robotics, generally, have gotten a boost during the pandemic, but agriculture and food production have gotten special looks, as organizations are looking for ways to automate their processes.
Including the aforementioned seed, Root has raised a total of $9.5 million to date, fueled by interest in its Virgo harvesting system. Founder and CEO Josh Lessing will step into a CTO role at AppHarvest if the acquisition clears. The startup is still fairly lean, with 19 full-time employees.
According to quotes from both parties, robot-gathered data for crop yields is a key part of the acquisition.
“Farming as we’ve known it is broken because of the increasing number of variables such as extreme weather, droughts, fire and contamination by animals that make our food system unreliable,” AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb said in a release tied to the news. Indoor farming solves for many of those challenges, and the data gathered can exponentially deliver more insights that help us predict and control crop quality and yield.”
Happy Robotics Week, to those who celebrate. I know a lot of us are unable to be with our loved ones this year, which means no robotics tree, robotics baskets full of robot eggs and green robot beer. Still, the National Robotics Week organization is putting on a bunch of virtual events across 50 states through April 11.
There’s been a bit of financial news over the past week, also worth noting. On Tuesday, Sarcos joined the rarified air of robotic SPACs. While it’s true there’s been a flurry of activity on that front in the startup world, robotics companies have been slower to embrace the whole blank-check-reverse-merger deal. Berkshire-Grey is the one company that immediately springs to mind.
Image Credits: Sarcos Robotics
Sarcos builds robotics and robotic exoskeletons that look like they were designed for a James Cameron movie. The company has already raised a bunch of money, including a $40 million round, back in September, but is probably most notable to mainstream readers for being at the center of Delta’s recent high-tech push. The airline plans to use some of the company’s tech to help employees lift large payloads.
Image Credits: Rapid Robotics
San Francisco-based Rapid Robotics, meanwhile, announced a $12 million Series A. That brings the company’s funding to date up to $17.5 million, hot on the heels of a decent-sized seed round. The company’s objective is providing a kind of plug and play solution for robotics manufacturing, and essentially lowering the barrier of entry for manufacturing automation across a range of industries.
SoftBank, which continues to be quite bullish on the space, just acquired 40% of AutoStore for a cool $2.8 billion, putting the Norwegian company’s valuation at $7.7 billion. The company uses robotics to maximize warehouse storage, consolidating it into around a quarter of the space. It already has a sizable footprint, as well — 20,000 robots deployed at around 600 locations. Per SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son:
We view AutoStore as a foundational technology that enables rapid and cost-effective logistics for companies around the globe. We look forward to working with AutoStore to aggressively expand across end markets and geographies.
And because it can’t all be investment news (I mean, it can, but who wants that?), some cool research out of MIT. Researchers from the school, along with ones from Harvard and Georgia Tech, showcased a robot that uses radio waves to sense hidden objects. The tech allows RF-Grasp to pick up things that are covered up or otherwise out of its line of vision. MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib describes it as “superhuman perception.”