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Yesterday — August 2nd 2021Your RSS feeds

The Station: The script for Elon Musk’s Loop drivers, Redwood snags $700M and a chat with Kodiak Robotics’ co-founder

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B.

In case you missed it, our scoop machine Mark Harris was at it again. This time, he found some interesting and entertaining documents related to Elon Musk’s underground Loop system in Las Vegas received via a Freedom of Information Act. Among the treasure is a “ride script” that instructs drivers for the Loop system to bypass passengers’ questions about how long they have been driving for the company, declare ignorance about crashes, and shut down conversations about Musk himself.

The takeaway: the script shows just how serious The Boring Company, which built and operates the system, is about controlling the public image of the new system, its technology and especially Musk.

Importantly, the documents confirm that Autopilot, the advanced driver assistance system in the Tesla vehicles used in the Loop system, must be disabled.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

This is a step outside the norm of what I usually think of when I think of micromobility (you’ll see what I did there in a second), but this week I wrote about a new in-shoe navigation system that helps the visually impaired walk around town.

Ashirase, as both the system and the name of the company is called, involves attaching a three-dimensional vibration device, including a motion sensor, inside a pair of shoes. This bit of hardware is connected to a smartphone app that someone with low vision can use to enter their destination. Vibrations in the front part of the shoe give the cue to walk straight, and vibrations on the left and right cue the user to make a left or right turn. The aim is to free up the hands while walking to use a cane and allow the walker to put more of their full attention on audio signals in the environment, thus making their commutes a bit more intuitive and their lives more independent.

It’s a really interesting bit of tech because it uses a similar stack to what we’re seeing in autonomous driving and advanced driver assistance systems. Which makes sense because that’s the founder’s background. Wataru Chino worked in Honda’s EV motor control and automated driving systems departments since 2009. His startup is a product of Honda’s incubator, Ignition, that features original technology, ideas, and designs of Honda associates with the goal of solving social issues and going beyond the existing Honda business.

Accessibility: We love to see it

Cabify recently announced a new feature that makes its rideshare service more accessible to the elderly, people with partial visual impairment and people with cognitive disabilities. The feature provides voice notifications to alert the user when a driver is on their way or has just arrived, when the ride starts, when a stop has been reached, when a message has come into the app’s chat, etc.

The notification makes use of a text-to-speech functionality that Android and iOS phones have.

“Apple and Google operating systems allow us to pronounce sentences with the system’s voice but we have developed the text and established the situations where we inform and draw the user’s attention,” a Cabify spokesperson told me.

Lime’s push for world domination

And we’re back with the latest on Lime’s plans to take over the world, one electric scooter at a time. The micromobility goliath has announced an integration with the Moovit transit planning app. From Monday onwards, Moovit users in 117 cities across 20 countries will see Lime’s electric scooters, bikes and mopeds show up as an option for travel, either as the whole journey or as part of a multi-modal journey. This news follows a trend we’re seeing as cities start to see micromobility companies as less of a public nuisance and more of a public solution, particularly for first- and last-mile travel. Integrating with Moovit, an app that’s solely focused on public transportation, is a move that helps in the long run creating a broader transportation ecosystem.

New whips

Espin released its limited edition fixie style e-bike called the Aero. It’s just the thing for Seattle hipsters, particularly ones with a stick-and-poke bike tattoo. The bike frame is just as sleek as you’d expect from a single gear bike, all clean lines and comes in either a forest green or a smoke gray. The Aero can reach top speeds of 20 mph and can hit 30 miles on a single charge. Best of all, it doesn’t break the bank at $1,399.

Splach, which normally makes e-scooters and e-bikes, has come out with something it’s calling the Transformer. I truly don’t know how to categorize it but it looks like a lot of fun to ride. The company is calling the light-duty e-vehicle a “mini-moto Robust scooter specialized for rugged terrains.” It looks like a dirt bike has been sized way down and given a long neck so you can stand on it and still steer it. It also looks like it would indeed do well on rugged terrains, based on videos of people shredding down dirt paths. Splach used Indiegogo to fund the thing, and said it reached its goal within an hour.

Deal of the week

money the station

Get ready to hear a lot more about supply chain constraints around batteries with virtually every automaker shouting out pledges to shift their entire portfolio away from internal combustion engines and towards electric powertrains.

Cell producers need access to the raw materials like nickel that are needed to make batteries. Mining those materials is the most common means, but that isn’t sustainable (and I’m not just talking about the environmental toll). JB Straubel, who is best known as the former Tesla co-founder and longtime CTO, is tackling the supply chain issue through his startup Redwood Materials. The battery recycling company is aiming to create a circular supply chain. This closed-loop system, Straubel says, will be essential if the world’s battery cell producers hope to have the supply needed for consumer electronics and the coming wave of electric vehicles.

High-profile investors like Amazon, funds managed by T. Rowe and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Ventures fund recognize the opportunity and have injected $700M in fresh capital into Redwood Materials. This is comically large compared to the startup’s last raise of $40 million. And sources tell me that this pushes Redwood Material’s valuation to $3.7 billion.

I interviewed Straubel about the raise and what struck me was how aggressively he wants to scale; he is treating this issue as if there is no time to lose — and he’s not wrong.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Clarios, the maker of low-voltage vehicle batteries, postponed its IPO, citing market volatility, Bloomberg reported. the Milwaukee area-based company backed by Brookfield Asset Management had filed to raise $1.7 billion by offering 88.1 million shares at a price range of $17 to $21.

Fisker, the electric vehicle startup turned publicly traded company via a SPAC, has turned investor to support EV charging company Allego. Fisker said it is investing $10 million in private-investment-in-public equity (PIPE) funding for the merger of Allego and special purpose acquisition company Spartan Acquisition Corp III. The merger puts Allego at a pro forma equity value of $3.14 billion.

Flock, which went from providing drone insurance to commercial vehicle insurance, raised $17 million in a Series A funding led by Social Capital, the investment vehicle run by Chamath Palihapitiya, best known as a SPAC investor and chairman of Virgin Galactic. Flock’s existing investors Anthemis and Dig Ventures also participated. This round brings Flock’s total funding to $22 million. Justin Saslaw (Social Capital’s fintech partner) joins Flock’s board of directors, as does Ross Mason (founder of Dig Ventures and MuleSoft).

HappyFresh, the on-demand grocery app based in Indonesia, raised $65 million in a Series D round led by Naver Financial Corporation and Gafina B.V., with participation from STIC, LB and Mirae Asset Indonesia and Singapore. It also included returning investors Mirae-Asset Naver Asia Growth Fund and Z Venture Capital. The company’s previous round of funding was a $20 million Series C announced in April 2019.

Lordstown Motors got a lifeline from a hedge fund managed by investment firm Yorkville Advisors about five weeks after the automaker issued a warning that it might not have enough funds to bring its electric pickup truck to market. The hedge fund agreed to buy $400 million worth of shares over a three-year period, according to a regulatory filing.

Merqueo, the on-demand delivery service that operates in Latin America, raised $50 million in a Series C round of funding co-led by IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest. MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders also participated. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Niron Magnetics, a company developing permanent magnets free of rare earths, raised $21.3 million in new financing from the Volvo Cars Tech Fund and Volta Energy Technologies, which joined existing investors Anzu Partners and the University of Minnesota. Niron will use the funding to build its pilot production facility in Minnesota.

Onto, the EV car subscription company raised $175 million in a combined equity and debt Series B round. The equity piece was led by Swedish VC Alfvén & Didrikson. British investment company Pollen Street Capital provided the senior-secured asset-backed debt facility. The company, which has raised a total of $245 million, says it plans to double its fleet size every three to six months and that any new vehicles will be used as collateral. Onto did not disclose how much of the round came from equity versus debt.

Zūm, a student transportation startup, was awarded a five-year $150 million contract to modernize San Francisco Unified School District transport service throughout the district. Zūm, which already operates its rideshare-meets-bus service in Oakland, much of Southern California, Seattle, Chicago and Dallas, will be responsible for handling day-to-day operations, transporting 3,500 students across 150 school campuses starting this fall semester.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

I hear things. But I’m not selfish. Let me share!

You might have missed my article late Friday about Argo AI landing a permit in California that will allow the company to give people free rides in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads.

Tl;dr: The California Public Utilities Commission issued Argo the so-called Drivered AV pilot permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. This puts Argo in a small and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing — a signal that the industry, or at least some companies, are preparing for commercial operations.

Regulatory hurdles remain and don’t expect Argo to be offering and charging for “driverless” rides anytime soon. But progress is being made and I would expect the company to secure the next permit — in a long line of them — later this year.

Argo has never officially indicated what city it is targeting for a robotaxi service in California. The company has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Ford vehicles around Palo Alto since 2019. Today, the company’s test fleet in California is about one dozen self-driving test vehicles. It also has autonomous test vehicles in Miami, Austin, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Detroit. (In July, Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years, starting with Miami and Austin.)

I’m hearing from some sources familiar with Argo’s strategy for California that we should look south of the Bay Area. Way south.

The city that jumps to mind is San Diego. Some AV companies are already playing around the Irvine area and Los Angeles seems too unwieldy. Plus, Ford already has a footprint in San Diego. The automaker partnered way back in 2017 with AT&T, Nokia and Qualcomm Technologies to test Cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) at the San Diego Regional Proving Ground with the support of the San Diego Association of Governments, Caltrans, the city of Chula Vista, and intelligent transportation solutions provider McCain. The upshot of these trials? To improve traffic efficiency, vehicle safety and “support a path towards autonomous vehicles.”

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hi everyone. Let’s dive into two key pieces of proposed legislation this week: the infrastructure bill and the tailpipe emissions standards.

After months of negotiations, U.S. senators have finally settled on a $550 billion infrastructure package that includes investments in roads, bridges, broadband and more. The bill would provide $7.5 billion to electrify buses and ferries, including school buses, and $7.5 billion to build out a national network of public EV charging stations. Subsequent statements on the bill from the White House say directly that the EV investments are intended to keep the U.S. competitive on the world stage: “U.S. market share of plug-in electric vehicle (EV) sales is only one-third the size of the Chinese EV market. The President believes that must change.”

The budget is just a fraction of the $2.25 trillion bill President Joe Biden originally introduced in March. That version of the bill earmarked billions more for transportation electrification, especially in rebates and incentives to get consumers buying more EVs. The bill is still with the Senate for final approval. Then it will head to the House before finally ending up on Biden’s desk.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have proposed rules that would beef up tailpipe emissions standards, which had been rolled back under President Donald Trump. The rules would be identical to the agreement the state of California reached with Ford, VW, Honda, BMW and Volvo in 2019, the AP reported. If approved, the rules would apply starting with model year 2023 vehicles.

The aim is to cut carbon emissions from transportation and encourage more people to buy hybrid and electric. But many environmental groups like the Sierra Club — plus some EV automakers — don’t think they go far enough.

“This draft proposal would drive us in the right direction after several years in reverse–but slowly getting back on track is not enough,” Chris Nevers, senior director of environmental policy at Rivian, told TechCrunch. EPA and NHTSA must maximize the stringency of the program beyond the voluntary deal and account for current and future developments in vehicle electrification.

One more thing that caught my eye this week…The Washington Post reported that Biden and a group of automakers are negotiating for the latter group to make a “formal pledge” to have at least 40% of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. The article doesn’t specify which OEMs are part of the talks. However, it’s hard to imagine automakers signing onto anything — even a “voluntary pledge” — without some hefty federal spending to go along with it. We’ll have to see if the provisions in the infrastructure bill are enough.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable reads and other tidbits

As per ushe, there was a ton of transportation news this week. Let’s dig in.

ADAS

Yep, ADAS gets its own section now in an effort to make it abundantly clear that advanced driver assistance systems are not self-driving cars. Never. Never ever.

New York Times’ Greg Bensinger weighs in on beta testing and Tesla in this opinion column.

Autonomous vehicles

Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson put out a blog and a bunch of tweets to layout a blueprint for an autonomous ride-hailing business that will launch in late 2024 with partners Toyota and Uber. Aurora has spent the past year or so pushing its messaging on self-driving trucks, which the company says is its best and most viable first commercial product. Aurora never entirely ditched the robotaxi idea, but it was pretty quiet on the topic. Until now.

The blog comes about a week after competitor Argo AI and Ford announced a partnership with Lyft. While the timing might not be related, it does show that competition is heating up in both areas — robotaxis and self-driving trucks — with every AV company keen to show progress and deep partnerships.

TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations. Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network.

Electric vehicles

Ford released Wednesday its second quarter earnings for 2021, which besides containing a surprise profit despite the ongoing chip shortage, revealed that its F-150 Lightning electric pickup has generated 120,000 preorders since its unveiling in May. Ford reported revenue of $26.8 billion, slightly below expectations, and net income of $561 million in the second quarter.

Lucid Group (formerly Lucid Motors) will be expanding its factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, by 2.7 million square feet, CEO Pete Rawlinson said just hours after the company officially went public with a $4.5 billion injection of capital. The company also said it has 11,000 paid reservations for its flagship luxury electric sedan, the Lucid Air.

Polestar said it plans to launch in nine more markets this year, doubling its global presence as it seeks to sell more of its electric sedans. The company, which is the electric performance vehicle brand under Volvo Car Group, also wants to double the number of retail stores to 100 locations and add more service centers by the end of the year. The Swedish automaker has more than 650 so-called “service points” in Polestar markets and wants to exceed 780 by the end of 2021.

REE Automotive has picked Austin for its U.S. headquarters. The company said the headquarters will help it address the growing U.S. market demand for mission-specific EVs from delivery and logistics companies, Mobility-as-a-Service and new technology players.

Tesla reported its second-quarter earnings and it was packed with news, including that the company generated $1.14 billion in net income, marking the first time the company’s quarterly profit (on a GAAP basis) has passed the three-comma threshold. And they hit that profitability metric without completely relying on the sale of zero-emissions credits to other automakers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk weighed in on the company’s battery strategy and disclosed that the company is pushing the launch of its electric Semi truck program to 2022 due to supply chain challenges and the limited availability of battery cells. And everything is pointing to the Cybertruck also being delayed until next year.

And finally, Tesla’s latest quarterly earnings report showed growth in its energy storage and solar business. The company reported $801 million in revenue from its energy generation and storage business — which includes three main products: solar, its Powerwall storage device for homes and businesses, and its utility storage unit Megapack. More importantly, the cost of revenue for its solar and energy storage business was $781 million, meaning that for the first time the total cost of producing and distributing these energy storage products was lower than the revenue it generated. That’s good news.

eVTOLs and other flying things

Joby Aviation completed the longest test flight of an eVTOL to date: Its unnamed full-sized prototype aircraft concluded a trip of over 150 miles on a single charge. The test was completed at Joby’s Electric Flight Base in Big Sur, California, earlier this month. It’s the latest in a succession of secretive tests the company’s been conducting, all part of its goal to achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration and start commercial operations.

Lilium, the electric air taxi startup, has tapped German manufacturer Customcells to supply batteries for its flagship seven-seater Lilium Jet.

People stuff

AEye, a lidar company, has been adding to its executive team in the past few months. The most recent is the hiring of automotive veteran and former Valeo executive Bernd Reichert as senior vice president of ADAS. the company has also hired Velodyne’s former COO Rick Tewell, Bob Brown from Cepton and Hod Finkelstein as chief research and design officer from Sense Photonics.

Cruise is also on a bit of an executive and engineering hiring spree. The company sent me a list of recent folks who have joined including former Southwest Airlines employee Anthony Gregory as VP of market development, Phil Maher, the former Virgin Atlantic COO, as VP of central operations and Bhavini Soneji as VP of product engineering. Soneji was most recently VP of engineering at Headspace, and was at Microsoft and Snapchat before that.

Cruise also hired Vinoj Kumar, who oversaw Google’s cloud infrastructure and software systems, as VP of Infrastructure and Yuning Chai, former lead perception researcher at Waymo, as head of AI Research. In all, Cruise now employs more than 1,900 people.

Don Burnette, the co-founder and CEO of self-driving trucks company Kodiak Robotics, sat down with TechCrunch as part of our ongoing Q&A series with the founders of transportation startups. The interview covers a lot of ground, including Burnette’s views on the company’s strategy, current funding conditions in the industry and what he learned at Otto. the self-driving trucks startup he co-founded and that was acquired by Uber.

Trevor Milton, the fast-talking showman founder of Nikola and the electric truck startup’s former CEO and executive chairman, was charged with three counts of fraud. He is free on $100 million bail.

Milton “engaged in a fraudulent scheme to deceive retail investors” for his own personal benefit, according to the federal indictment unsealed by U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Milton was charged with two counts of securities fraud and wire fraud by a federal grand jury.

 

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

They’re programmed to work hard and play hard

By Brian Heater

Industrial robotics are big and heavy — and in some cases, legitimately dangerous. They’re also extremely difficult to train — particularly if you plan to implement them for tasks outside of their purpose-built intentions.

There’s huge opportunity for the right AI/software company to come along and help make the bulky systems intended for things like auto manufacturing easier to program and more versatile. Honestly, there’s probably enough room to support multiple companies in the category as robots become an increasingly essential part of how we do business.

This week we saw a pair of big news stories from companies operating in that space. On Tuesday, Covariant announced an $80 million raise — a quick follow-up to the $40 million Series B it announced in May 2020.

Image Credits: Covariant

I spoke to president, chief scientist and co-founder (and recurring TC Sessions: Robotics guest) Pieter Abbeel for the piece, which you can check out here. I further picked the long-time UC Berkeley professor’s brain about some broader robotics trends.

We’ve seen a marked increase in investment activity around robotics and automation since the beginning of the pandemic. Do you anticipate that this interest will maintain?

It won’t just maintain. It’ll continue to accelerate on a dramatic scale. The demand isn’t new but the pandemic has certainly increased demand for resilient and robust robotics. COVID-19 accelerated a timeline that was already in motion. Other factors that contribute to the momentum include the rise of e-commerce replacing in-store purchases along with Amazon’s strive for efficiency. They’ve raised consumer expectations of fast delivery across the board and making good on that promise often starts with warehouse automation.

As someone with experience in both an educational setting and a startup, how have universities’ approach to incubating companies evolved. What more can and should be done to foster entrepreneurship?

With AI the transition from research to practice has been exceptionally fast. An idea could be published today, and many companies might be implementing it into their systems the next day. This trend has made AI researchers uniquely positioned to build new applications (compare this to, let’s say, Airbnb, Uber, food delivery companies, etc., which were not enabled by research advances, but by everyone having a smartphone, enabling a new model of doing business).

Structurally, one clear change at many universities is the introduction of artificial intelligence across many programs. A great example is “The Business of AI” course, which I co-teach in the Haas Business School at Berkeley, and which gives business students a solid understanding of the role of AI today, as well as trends and what the future might bring.

To foster more entrepreneurship in the U.S., leadership should consider how many international students are also the leading AI researchers. A faster visa/green card process for entrepreneurs would have a very high impact.

Do you foresee continuing to teach, as Covariant grown?

Yes. I see a very strong synergy between being at the forefront of academic AI research at Berkeley and being at the forefront of industrial R&D bringing AI Robotics into the real world as chief scientist at Covariant. The culture our CEO Peter Chen has fostered at Covariant also has great alignment with this; curiosity and lifelong learning are core values at Covariant.

How actively does your team consider biases in its AI work?

Bias in AI systems is of course a broader industry issue and is on the minds of our team members. As of today, bias in AI systems doesn’t directly play a role in our current robotic warehousing efforts. However, quality assurance more generally is core to everything we do, and quality assurance isn’t a one-axis thing, we have to consider quality and coverage of various data sources and performance across SKUs, warehouses, customers, etc. In that sense, there are actually many technical parallels.

It seems like most of the activity on the industrial robotics front is happening on the software/AI side. Are robotics manufacturers continuing to evolve their hardware as software improves?

Indeed, while we largely focus on the software/AI ourselves, we work with amazing partners to deliver fully functioning robotic systems. In doing so, we see continual improvement on the hardware as well. Most visible over a short time period are continual changes in end-of-arm tooling. In addition, we see interesting multiyear roadmap ideas in robotic arm form factors that take more R&D and design effort to bring to market.

Image Credits: Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich

The other big news of the week is the unveiling of Intrinsic, Alphabet’s most recent robotics play. Or, I guess I should say, most recently announced robotics play. The Alphabet X spinout has apparently been in the works for about five years now. It follows a fairly uneven robotics track record for Alphabet/Google that involved brief ownership of Boston Dynamics. But the company’s offering seems much more in-line with what Google excels at.

Here’s Intrinsic CEO, Wendy Tan-White, who most recently served as Alphabet’s VP of Moonshots:

Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications. Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation and force control.

Image Credits: Agility

Closing the week’s roundup with a pair of athletic ‘bots. First is the return of Cassie, Oregon State University’s bipedal robot. Cassie took a bit of a backseat to OSU spinoff Agility’s delivery robot, Digit, but the school is continuing to do interesting things with the platform. A team of research helped teach the robot to run, using a a deep reinforcement learning algorithm.

In fact, Cassie managed to run a 5K in 53 minutes. Not great by human standards, but extremely solid for a robot using a single battery, particularly when you factor in the 6.5 minutes of troubleshooting an overheated computer and a poorly maneuvered turn.

Outside Olympians and T-shirt vendors, Toyota may well have been the most disappointed about the initial decision to delay the summer Olympics. The automotive giant clearly envisioned the Tokyo games as an ideal opportunity to showcase its technology for the world.

Now that the games are on, the company’s basketball robot CUE is back in a big way. After debuting in 2018, CUE returned to sink three-pointers during half-time at the USA-France game.

Leaving the cube

By Brian Heater

I did a bit of a double-take on this one: $100 million is a big number at any point, but two-and-a-half months after a $56 million round is pretty wild. At the very least, we know Path Robotics is ready to put its money where its mouth is — and that Tiger Global likes what it sees in the welding robotics firm.

The “pre-emptive” Series C brings its total funding to $171 and leapfrogs it toward the top of the most well-funded construction robotics companies. There’s a lot of room here, of course. The global construction market is in the tens of trillions of dollars, annually. And one of the beauties of the industry is precisely how many flanks there are to attack it from.

Image Credits: Path Robotics

Path’s particular funding…well, path, points to ambitions beyond welding. But that’s a good place to start, with a massive labor shortage of around 400,000 jobs in the U.S. alone by 2024. Tiger Global partner Griffin Schroeder pulls the curtain back a touch, stating:

Path’s innovative approach to computer vision and proprietary AI software allows robots to sense, understand and adapt to the challenges of each unique welding project. We believe this breakthrough technology can be adopted for many other applications and products beyond just welding, to serve their customers holistically.

I do think there’s a risk of taking on too much too fast for a startup — even one as well-funded as Path.

Image Credits: ADUSA Distribution

Verve Motion’s funding round just barely missed the cutoff for roundup inclusion last week. It’s tough when your lead-in is a $100 million round, but $15 million’s certainly nothing to scoff at. A spinout of some of the really interesting work being done at Conor Walsh’s lab at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Verve Motion is one of a number of startups in the exoskeleton/exosuit category.

There are two largely distinct audiences for this tech: people with mobility issues and the blue-collar labor force. For now, at least, Verve is targeting the latter, with its soft exosuits designed to help reduce workplace injuries from activities like repetitive lifting. Honestly, it fits the dull, dirty, dangerous paradigm pretty well.

Less fun news out of OpenAI, which quietly disbanded its robotics team. The move actually came last October, but Venture Beat reported on it last week. The team was probably best known for its Rubik’s Cube-solving robotics hand — a fascinating project, but apparently a bit of a dead end. Quoting a spokesperson:

After advancing the state of the art in reinforcement learning through our Rubik’s Cube project and other initiatives, last October we decided not to pursue further robotics research and instead refocus the team on other projects. Because of the rapid progress in AI and its capabilities, we’ve found that other approaches, such as reinforcement learning with human feedback, lead to faster progress in our reinforcement learning research.

And in the department of horribly butchering a funny thing Mark Twain once said, reports of Pepper’s death are…if not exaggerated, than at least disputed by the source. What remains clear is that the robotic face of Softbank wasn’t doing what the firm had hoped, and at the very least, it has decided to go back to the drawing board.

In addition to continuing refurbished sales of the signage-holding humanoid bot, Softbank Robotics CMO Kazutaka Hasumi told Reuters, “We will still be selling Pepper in five years.” It’s hard to know what to make of that. As far as these things go, Pepper wasn’t a particularly useful robot, in spite of it having a solid pedigree owing to Softbank’s acquisition of French firm, Aldebaran.

At the very least, the company is mulling over some kind of redesign. That alone seems unlikely to move the needle much.

Path Robotics raises another $100M

By Brian Heater

In May, Path Robotics announced a $56 million Series B. It was a sizable raise, as far as robotics rounds go. But the Columbus, Ohio-based startup is already back for more, raising a “pre-emptive” Series C a mere two and a half months later.

And it’s a biggie. The firm has raised $100 million, led by Tiger Global and featuring participation from Silicon Valley Bank, an existing investor. The deal brings the robotic welding firm’s total funding to $171 million.

Image Credits: Path Robotics

Path cites a longstanding shortage of skilled welders as a primary driver in interest around its tech. The problem dates back before the global pandemic (though that’s likely only exacerbated the issue, as it has with so many other labor issues). Once again, it notes a study by the American Welding Society that says the U.S. alone will experience a shortage in the welding workface of around 400,000 by 2024.

From the sound of it, the company is already looking beyond welding. After all, construction is a huge business, with massive opportunities for the right robotics organization. And, of course, having an infusion of $100 million certainly doesn’t hurt your growth plans.

“Most robots merely repeat what they are told, with no ability to improve themselves. The future of manufacturing hinges on highly capable, flexible robotics,” CEO Andrew Lonsberry said in a statement. “Robots that can truly see and learn.”

Image Credits: Path Robotics

What, precisely, those future plans are, the company doesn’t say, but it plans to build them atop of its imaging and AI, presumably to build a sort of modular ecosystem for the construction robotics category.

Tiger Global partner Griffin Schroeder hints at those plans in a statement. “Path’s innovative approach to computer vision and proprietary AI software allows robots to sense, understand and adapt to the challenges of each unique welding project. We believe this breakthrough technology can be adopted for many other applications and products beyond just welding, to serve their customers holistically.”

Programming robots to put jackets on people is harder than it looks

By Brian Heater

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from some of our favorite YouTube shitty robots, it’s that human-robot interaction can be a tricky business. Developing methods to get rigid robotic arms to perform delicate tasks around soft human bodies is easier said than done.

This week, a team at MIT’s CSAIL department is showcasing its work using robotic arms to help people get dressed. The promise of such technology is clear: helping people with mobility issues perform tasks that many of us take for granted.

Among the biggest hurdles is creating algorithms that are able to navigate around the human form efficiently, without hurting the person it’s trying to help. Preprogrammed modes can run into all sorts of variables, including shapes and human reactions. Overreacting to variables, on the other hand, can effectively freeze the robot, unsure of the best route to take.

So, the team set out to develop a system that could adapt to different scenarios and learn as it goes.

Image Credits: MIT CSAIL

“To provide a theoretical guarantee of human safety, the team’s algorithm reasons about the uncertainty in the human model. Instead of having a single, default model where the robot only understands one potential reaction, the team gave the machine an understanding of many possible models, to more closely mimic how a human can understand other humans,” MIT writes in a blog post. As the robot gathers more data, it will reduce uncertainty and refine those models.”

The team says it will also be researching how human subjects react to these sorts of tasks.

Extra Crunch roundup: NS1 EC-1, Pakistan’s tech ecosystem, SPACs bonanza

By Walter Thompson

Did you see the viral videos of yesterday’s flooding in New York City subways?

In one, riders waded through brown, waist-deep water; another video showed a cascade rushing down a flight of stairs to a subway platform where passengers waited for a train.

Infrastructure doesn’t attract much attention until it fails. Domain name services (DNS), the system that directs readers to techcrunch.com when they say or speak it into their web browser, are much the same way.

For the latest entry in a series of longform articles that explore the inner workings of notable startups, we looked at NS1, an internet infrastructure company best known for its software-defined DNS.

Since its founding in 2013, NS1 has raised more than $100 million to build an engineering team and robust product portfolio that’s expanded to include DDI, which helps companies manage internal networks.

If you’re curious about how NS1 transformed “a slumbering and dreary yet reliable aspect of the internet” into “a strategic moat and an enterprise win” in just eight years, read on.


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


Part 1: Origin story: how three engineers decided to rebuild the internet’s core addressing system.

Part 2: Product development and roadmap: experimentation, open-source efforts and expanding beyond DNS.

Part 3: Competitive landscape: a look at the broader internet infrastructure market.

Part 4: Customer development: how their top competitor’s stumble became “the gift that kept on giving.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch — have a great weekend!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Startups have never had it so good

Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim didn’t mince words in today’s Exchange.

“The venture capital market is racing ahead, foot on the gas, middle finger out the window, hair on fire.”

That’s their hot take after analyzing the Q2 data released so far about how much money VCs deployed across the globe between April and the end of June.

Leaning on data from CB Insights, Crunchbase News and FactSet, Alex and Anna walk through the data from the U.S. and a few other regions — and promise deeper regional dives next week.

What I learned the hard way from naming 30+ startups

Image of a pink toy dinosaur holding a name tag on a yellow background.

Image Credits: Juj Winn (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

If you’re starting a company, choosing a name can feel like a fraught choice. But actually, as long as you follow some basic guidelines, it shouldn’t lead to paralysis.

“The truth is that business names fall on a bell curve — you have a small number of outliers that actively contribute to your success and a small number of outliers that actively impair your ability to succeed,” Drew Beechler, who’s named more than 30 software startups, writes in a guest column. “The vast majority, though, fall somewhere in the middle in their impact on your business.”

Nextdoor’s SPAC investor deck paints a picture of sizable scale and sticky users

American Suburban Neighborhood Tilt-shift Aerial Photo

Image Credits: jhorrocks / Getty Images

The SPAC parade continued apace this week as Nextdoor announced it would go public via a blank-check company, with the community social network making its pitch based on scale, claiming users in one in three U.S. households.

Alex Wilhelm unpacks Nextdoor’s “clear-eyed look into [its] financial performance in both historical terms and in terms of what it might accomplish in the future,” noting that “our usual mockery of SPAC charts mostly doesn’t apply.”

Pakistan’s growing tech ecosystem is finally taking off

Image of the Karachi, Pakistan, skyline.

Image Credits: shan.shihan (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

So far this year, startups in Pakistan are on track to raise more than in the previous five years combined, according to Mikal Khoso, an early-stage investor at Wavemaker Partners.

“Even more excitingly, a large portion of this capital is coming from international investors from across Asia, the Middle East and even famed investors from Silicon Valley,” he notes in a guest post for Extra Crunch.

He’s identified three factors that are fueling investor interest: rapidly expanding mobile connectivity, an improved security situation, and critical legal and regulatory changes that are making the country more startup- and VC-friendly.

Drawing a map of Pakistan’s tech ecosystem, Khoso identifies local companies trying to grab a slice of grocery delivery, e-commerce, ride-hailing and other sectors before examining the challenges still in place.

“The segments in Pakistan that are likely to attract the best entrepreneurs and most investor capital in the years to come will be fintech, e-commerce and edtech,” says Khoso.

Investors find European unicorns reluctant to join SPAC boom

The nonstop news of startups partnering up with SPACs in the United States had Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim wondering if the blank-check boom expanded to other countries.

“Unicorns are hardly unique to the U.S. startup ecosystem,” they write. “Are we seeing similar SPAC interest in Europe?”

Anna and Alex talked to investors to see why — or why not — European startups would take the SPAC path to become a public company.

For successful AI projects, celebrate your graveyard and be prepared to fail fast

Image of an origami crane and several crumpled pieces of paper to represent success from failure.

Image Credits: Wachiwit (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

When you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in a project, it can be difficult to decide to shelve it — or worse, kill it.

But for AI projects, teams should be prepared to fail fast, Sandeep Uttamchandani, the chief data officer of Unravel Data, writes in a guest column.

“In order to fail fast, AI initiatives should be managed as a conversion funnel analogous to marketing and sales funnels,” he writes. “Projects start at the top of the five-stage funnel and can drop off at any stage, either to be temporarily put on ice or permanently suspended and added to the AI graveyard.”

Uttamchandani walks through the five stages of the funnel and offers suggestions for when to start digging a hole for your project in the graveyard.

Circle is a good example of why SPACs can be useful

Yes, we’re all a bit over-SPAC-ed at this point. It’s just been a nonstop torrent of startups linking up with blank-check companies.

But Circle, a Boston-based technology company that provides API-delivered financial services and a stablecoin, is just “the sort of business that is correct for a SPAC-led debut,” Alex Wilhelm writes in The Exchange.

“It could not go public in a traditional manner in its current state of maturity,” he writes.

“But a SPAC can get it a huge slug of cash at a price that it has locked in, allowing it to complete its growth into corporate adulthood while public. A gamble, sure, but one that will be very fun to watch.”

Can advertising scale in VR?

Image of a person wearing a VR headset and two 3D orbs in front of his hands.

Image Credits: da-kuk (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

It’s not hard to imagine how advertising could be valuable in VR: billboards on streetscapes, magazine covers on newsstands, cereal boxes in virtual kitchens.

But Facebook’s stab at experimental VR ads didn’t last very long; after an onslaught of negative feedback from players, the test was quickly scuttled.

That said, VR advertising has a ton of untapped potential — but it’s going to take a minute to reach profitable scale.

Achieving digital transformation through RPA and process mining

concept of machine learning or digital transformation, wireframe hand pointing with key finger

Image Credits: Jackie Niam (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

“Robots are not coming to replace us,” Alp Uguray is quick to note in a guest column about robotic process automation. “They are coming to take over the repetitive, mundane and monotonous tasks that we’ve never been fond of.”

That’s the good news. But RPA is still in the early stages, despite rapid growth through IPOs, acquisitions and funding rounds.

“Adoption of RPA and process mining in your organization will define the operational excellence of your firm,” he writes. “If you are behind in this race, just think of how your enterprise can continue to compete with fully digital peers. Your organization won’t want to be in the back of this race.”

Demand Curve: 10 lies you’ve been told about marketing

Image of an advertiser speaking in front of a podium with a shadow of a long nose to represent lies.

Image Credits: Abscent84 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In a guest column, Nick Costelloe, the head of content for Demand Curve, notes that the content you stumble across in a Google search might not be “intentionally misleading,” it might not lead you in the right direction.

Here, he debunks 10 common myths about marketing — and offers suggestions for what to do instead.

5 fundraising imperatives for robotics startups

Image of a robot hand holding a fistful of cash to represent funding for robotics startups.

Image Credits: Paper Boat Creative (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

This guest post from three contributors from Next47, MassRobotics and Lux Capital looks at best practices for robotics startups looking to raise cash.

“There has never been a better time to pursue funding for robotics startups, but you are more likely to succeed if you build a fundraising strategy that is marked by the same sophistication and informed understanding you already bring to many other aspects of your new business,” the writers say.

Here, they lay out five strategies to ensure robotics startups get the funding they need.

5 fundraising imperatives for robotics startups

By Annie Siebert
Lidiya Dervisheva Contributor
As a partner at Next47, Lidiya Dervisheva works in the areas of robotics, AI and machine vision, as well as broader industrial and enterprise verticals.
Fady Saad Contributor
Fady Saad is the co-founder and strategic partnerships vice president of MassRobotics, the first and largest robotics/AI startup escalator in the world.
Bilal Zuberi Contributor
Bilal Zuberi is a partner at Lux Capital, and is on the boards of Evolv Technology, CyPhy Technologies, and Nozomi Networks, among others.

Early-stage robotics fundraising is accelerating, with funding coming from boutiques to deep-pocketed venture capital firms. For founders, getting their idea from concept to company, or developing a minimum viable product, is daunting enough, but seeking an initial fundraising round brings a complexity that can be especially challenging to manage.

So how do robotics startups best approach fundraising and secure the financing to propel their company to the next level? There are five key areas to keep in mind about fundraising for robotics startups that founders must learn and practice.

Understand the proper fit between your company’s scale and the fund’s scale

Too often, founders court venture capitalists without understanding that the company they are founding might not be the right fit for VCs. Venture capital firms generally, and ones that invest in robotics specifically, look to invest in startups that have clearly identified potential to scale exponentially.

They are not geared toward backing entrepreneurs looking for an exit under $100 million that will only realize a handful of multiples for the investor. VCs are more likely looking to fund on a much larger scale — think a $1-billion-plus exit valuation — and back a company with the potential to deliver at least a 10x return.

Venture capital firms generally, and ones that invest in robotics specifically, look to invest in startups that have clearly identified potential to scale exponentially.

Usually, robotics companies are capital-intensive and require a robust revenue model compared to pure software startups, and this is not for every VC. In fact, venture capital is likened to “rocket fuel” that is dangerous if put into a car but perfect for a rocket ready to shoot for escape velocity. Smaller-scale ventures often do not interest VCs but might be perfect for angel investors.

Bottom line: Do your homework, manage expectations, and seek funding from investors working at a scale commensurate with your idea and comfortable with the unique needs of robotics companies.

Consider capital sources that fit different companies and startups at different stages of its growth

Now is a great time for starting a company, in part because there have never been more sources of financing available. Angel investors and venture capitalists are just a portion of what is available.

There is growing opportunity, especially for robotics and AI startups, in nondilutive capital, including from U.S. government sources such as Department of Energy and Department of Defense grants. There are loaded/nondilutive funding streams, such as convertible debt, available from financial institutions and angels.

Special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, especially for hardware and robotics companies, have become popular in recent years. Some of these might be a better fit for your company at the current (or future) stage of your organizational growth cycle.

But some sophistication is warranted. Ask yourself what constraints or potential downsides come with the specific funding model you are considering/pursuing. Government grants, for instance, might drive the pace of development or push you toward certain customer-facing directions in ways that could be ill-suited to your company.

Stumble-proof robot adapts to challenging terrain in real time

By Devin Coldewey

Robots have a hard time improvising, and encountering an unusual surface or obstacle usually means an abrupt stop or hard fall. But researchers at Facebook AI have created a new model for robotic locomotion that adapts in real time to any terrain it encounters, changing its gait on the fly to keep trucking when it hits sand, rocks, stairs, and other sudden changes.

Although robotic movement can be versatile and exact, and robots can “learn” to climb steps, cross broken terrain and so on, these behaviors are more like individual trained skills that the robot switches between. And although robots like Spot famously can spring back from being pushed or kicked, the system is really just working to correct a physical anomaly while pursuing an unchanged policy of walking. There are some adaptive movement models, but some are very specific (for instance this one based on real insect movements) and others take long enough to work that the robot will certainly have fallen by the time they take effect.

Rapid Motor Adaptation, as the team calls it, came from the idea that humans and other animals are able to quickly, effectively, and unconsciously change the way they walk to fit different circumstances.

“Say you learn to walk and for the first time you go to the beach. Your foot sinks in, and to pull it out you have to apply more force. It feels weird, but in a few steps you’ll be walking naturally just as you do on hard ground. What’s the secret there?” asked senior researcher Jitendra Malik, who is affiliated with Facebook AI and UC Berkeley.

Certainly if you’ve never encountered a beach before, but even later in life when you have, you aren’t entering some special “sand mode” that lets you walk on soft surfaces. The way you change your movement happens automatically and without any real understanding of the external environment.

Visualization of the simulation environment. Of course the robot would not perceive any of this visually. Image credit: Berkeley AI Research, Facebook AI Research and CMU

“What’s happening is your body responds to the differing physical conditions by sensing the differing consequences of those conditions on the body itself,” Malik explained — and the RMA system works in similar fashion. “When we walk in new conditions, in a very short time, half a second or less, we have made enough measurements that we are estimating what these conditions are, and we modify the walking policy.”

The system was trained entirely in simulation, in a virtual version of the real world where the robot’s small brain (everything runs locally on the on-board limited compute unit) learned to maximize forward motion with minimum energy and avoid falling by immediately observing and responding to data coming in from its (virtual) joints, accelerometers, and other physical sensors.

To punctuate the total internality of the RMA approach, Malik notes that the robot uses no visual input whatsoever. But people and animals with no vision can walk just fine, so why shouldn’t a robot? But since it’s impossible to estimate the “externalities” such as the exact friction coefficient of the sand or rocks it’s walking on, it simply keeps a close eye on itself.

“We do not learn about sand, we learn about feet sinking,” said co-author Ashish Kumar, also from Berkeley.

Ultimately the system ends up having two parts: a main, always-running algorithm actually controlling the robot’s gait, and an adaptive algorithm running in parallel that monitors changes to the robot’s internal readings. When significant changes are detected, it analyzes them — the legs should be doing this, but they’re doing this, which means the situation is like this — and tells the main model how to adjust itself. From then on the robot only thinks in terms of how to move forward under these new conditions, effectively improvising a specialized gait.

Footage of the robot not falling as it traverses various tough surfaces.

Image Credits: Berkeley AI Research, Facebook AI Research and CMU

After training in simulation, it succeeded handsomely in the real world, as the news release describes it:

The robot was able to walk on sand, mud, hiking trails, tall grass and a dirt pile without a single failure in all our trials. The robot successfully walked down stairs along a hiking trail in 70% of the trials. It successfully navigated a cement pile and a pile of pebbles in 80% of the trials despite never seeing the unstable or sinking ground, obstructive vegetation or stairs during training. It also maintained its height with a high success rate when moving with a 12kg payload that amounted to 100% of its body weight.

You can see examples of many of these situations in videos here or (very briefly) in the gif above.

Malik gave a nod to the research of NYU professor Karen Adolph, whose work has shown how adaptable and freeform the human process of learning how to walk is. The team’s instinct was that if you want a robot that can handle any situation, it has to learn adaptation from scratch, not have a variety of modes to choose from.

Just as you can’t build a smarter computer vision system by exhaustively labeling and documenting every object and interaction (there will always be more), you can’t prepare a robot for a diverse and complex physical world with 10, 100, even thousands of special parameters for walking on gravel, mud, rubble, wet wood, etc. For that matter you may not even want to specify anything at all beyond the general idea of forward motion.

“We don’t pre-program the idea that it has for legs, or anything about the morphology of the robot,” said Kumar.

This means the basis of the system — not the fully trained one, which ultimately did mold itself to quadrupedal gaits — can potentially be applied not just to other legged robots, but entirely different domains of AI and robotics.

“The legs of a robot are similar to the fingers of a hand; the way that legs interact with environments, fingers interact with objects,” noted co-author Deepak Pathak, of Carnegie Mellon University. “The basic idea can be applied to any robot.”

Even further, Malik suggested, the pairing of basic and adaptive algorithms could work for other intelligent systems. Smart homes and municipal systems tend to rely on preexisting policies, but what if they adapted on the fly instead?

For now the team is simply presenting their initial findings in a paper at the Robotics: Science & Systems conference  and acknowledge that there is a great deal of follow-up research to do. For instance building an internal library of the improvised gaits as a sort of “medium term” memory, or using vision to predict the necessity of initiating a new style of locomotion. But the RMA approach seems to be a promising new approach for an enduring challenge in robotics.

Robotic funding doesn’t grow on trees

By Brian Heater

As I mentioned at the close of last week’s roundup, the biggest issue in writing this roundup on Wednesday is that sometimes news breaks on Thursday morning. Again, I’m asking the robotics community to try not make any big headlines on Thursdays. That would really help a guy out.

Last week, news broke that Zebra Technologies had purchased Fetch. I’ve written about the latter several times over the past couple years, and spoken to founder Melonee Wise a number of times, as well. Ultimately, it’s not much of a surprise Fetch went the acquisition route. If I were a better man, however, I would have leaned heavily toward an acquisition by some mega-retailer like Walmart or Target.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Everyone is looking for a competitive advantage against Amazon, including those big names. And, of course, they’ve got the deep pockets to purchase a head start. Ultimately, I think a deal like this is better for the industry, at large, given how Amazon’s acquisitions tend to go. The company loves to buy up startups and keep all of that cool technology to itself. I spoke to Wise about the deal, late last week. Some excerpts:

As we were fundraising for our Series D, this opportunity came out of that. I think when you look at it, over the last couple of years, we’ve had a good relationship with them. With the pandemic, there’s been a huge draw for more and more automation technology. Before the pandemic, there were already labor shortages for warehouse and logistics, and the pandemic only exacerbated it. One of the other great things about us joining Zebra is they have a strong go-to-market engine, and they can amplify our sales capability. They’re already in all of the customers we want to be working with. It helps us reach a much broader, wider and deeper audience.

I think it’s complicated. When I started the company, I never really planned on anything. I just wanted to go build something. I mean that in the most sincere way. I wanted to go build something and not fail. And the question is, what does not failing look like? I think the facts are that in the last 20-something years, almost no robotics company has IPO’ed. Now we’re starting to see SPACS, but there hasn’t been a robotics company that’s IPO’ed through the traditional route.

In terms of vision of how we’re thinking about it, Zebra is very excited to kind of make Fetch the centerpiece of this whole new offering that they’re building out. It’s a high strategic priority for them.

Image Credits: Abundant

On the whole, this week marked a pretty substantial slow down in terms of funding announcements. We did get one big bummer news item, as Abundant Robotics is shutting down. Good Fruit Grower got the following statement from CEO Dan Steere,

After a series of promising commercial trials with prototype apple harvesters, the company was unable to raise enough investment funding to continue development and launch a production system.

We’ve reached out for further comment, but the company’s understandably not champing at the bit to discuss where things went wrong. It’s easier, of course, to celebrate the successes than it is to dissect the failures, the latter happens much more often than we can to admit in this field. Often they arrive early in the process and don’t really warrant a lot of ink.

Abundant’s different. From the outside, the Bay Area company appeared to be on the right track toward becoming a dominant name in robotic fruit harvesting. The company had raised a total of $12 million, including Series A in 2017. Granted, that’s not an insignificant amount of time to go between raises and bringing robotics to production is extraordinarily difficult.

What’s more surprising is that the company couldn’t drum up enough interest to get it across the finish line during the pandemic, when, anecdotally, interest in robotics and automation seems to be heating up. Certainly that applies to farming, which has experienced series labor shortages over the past year. More insight into that soon, I hope.

Sarcos, meanwhile, keeps finding its way into the news cycle. This week, it’s the launch of the teleoperated Guardian XT. The company’s exoskeletons get all the love (thanks in no small part to some high profile partnerships), but company also produces non-body mounted robotics. Per the company,

The SenSuit controller enables the Guardian XT robot to mimic the operator’s movements in real-time. It is an inertial measurement unit (IMU)-based motion tracker that communicates with the robot and leverages Sarcos’ proprietary force feedback technologies. The company also plans to integrate a VR- or AR-based HMD to provide remote visual and situational awareness to the operator. The Guardian XT robot is equipped with 3-degrees of freedom end effectors that enable dexterous control of trade tools and materials, including hand-held power tools, welding and cutting equipment, inspection and test equipment, parts and components, hazardous materials, and retail inventory goods, amongst others.

The system is capable of lifting and moving up to 200 pounds and will hit the market by the end of next year.

Image Credits: Fusion

Meanwhile, robotic surgery company Fusion Robotics announced this week announced plans to merge with Adaptive Geometry, another tech company specializing in spinal surgery technology. The two companies will combine to create the perfectly nondescript Accelus (frankly, Fusion is a pretty good name for two combined companies, but maybe that’s just me).

“Accelus will create opportunities for wide-scale adoption of robotics in spine surgery—both in hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs)—by addressing previous constraints related to cost and efficiency,” Accelus Chris Walsh said in a release. “Both Fusion Robotics and Integrity Implants have built enabling technology platforms that create a force multiplier for spinal care. Our products and culture create accessibility to fit each patient’s anatomy, each surgeon’s preferred approach, and each healthcare facility’s space and budget limitations, embodying our core principle of access without compromise.”

That’s a lot of business talk this week, so here’s a fun video of Boston Dynamics doing fun Boston Dynamics stuff, presumably to welcome their new Hyundai overlords:

 

You’re a carmaker, drink-taker, automator

By Brian Heater

The other week at TC Sessions: Mobility, I spoke to a trio of executives at top automotive companies about why they’re all so bullish about robotics. There are the obvious implications, of course. Automakers have long employed robotics for manufacturing – they were really ahead of the curve on those concerns about automating job loss. And then there’s the fact that self-driving cars are effectively robots.

Beyond that, however, it’s clear that car companies see robotics as a key investment in their future. What really struck me about the conversation, is how differently the three companies – Hyundai, Ford and Toyota – are approaching the space. If nothing else, it’s a sign that there’s plenty of opportunity here.

We wrote quite a bit about Ford’s ambitions in the category several roundups ago, including an interview with Mario Santillo, who joined us for the recent panel. As evidenced by the company’s recent investment in University of Michigan, Ford’s approach is largely research-based. The company wants to be in on the ground floor both in terms of technology and talent. Though when I pressed Santillo about acquisitions, however, (specifically as it pertains to Digit-maker, Agility), he told me, “that’s always something we’re looking at.” So don’t rule it of, especially as other car companies begin to lockdown big names in the category.

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

Hyundai, of course, made one of the biggest robotics acquisitions in recent memory, picking up Boston Dynamics after its short stint in the Softbank portfolio (the investment firm remains a shareholder). Of course, that post-Google time has been important for the company, seeing the commercialization of Spot and the upcoming sale of Stretch. Hyundai’s Ernestine Fu shed some more light for us on the deal, which officially closed this week,

With New Horizon Studios, the mandate is reimagining what you can do when you combine robotics with traditional wheeled locomotion, like walking robots and walking vehicles. Obviously the technology that [Boston Dynamics] has put together plays a key role in enabling those sorts of concepts to come to life.

Hyundai Tiger walking robot

Image Credits: Screenshot/Hyundai

As we discussed, the driving force in the Toyota Research Institute’s interest in the category Japan’s aging population. Eldercare forms the basis of much of what the company does in robotics, including some home robotics research that it showed off this week – specifically how its imaging can handle reflective and transparent surfaces. Both have traditionally been tricky for robotic systems.

As TRI’s Max Bajracharya told me,

[I]n Japan, in 20-30 years, the number of people who are over 65 will roughly be the same as the number of people who are under 65. That’s going to have a really interesting socioeconomic impact, in terms of the workforce. It’s probably going to be much older and we at Toyota are looking at how these people can keep doing their jobs, so they can get the fulfillment from doing their jobs or staying at home longer. We don’t want to just replace the people. We really think about how we stay human-centered and amplify people.

Image Credits: NVIDIA

We’ve been following NVIDIA’s Isaac software for a while now, and the robotic simulation software is available as an open beta. Built on top of Omniverse, the software is designed to test a wide range of different camera and sensor capabilities for robotics. It’s a fascinate project and potentially a big deal for early-stage robotics startups.

Quick follow up to some funding last week from a robots landscaping company, I asked iRobot what’s going on with their Terra mower, which was delayed amid pandemic-related cuts. The company tells me there’s still no clear timeline for the indefinitely delayed robot.

Image Credits:

Miso Robotics, meanwhile, continues to build out from Flippy, the hamburger-flipping robot with an automated beverage dispenser. The machine, created with beverage dispenser manufacturer Lancer, fully automates the process, right down to adding the cap on the cup. No clear timeline on the product yet, however, but it’s fun to see some of these companies branch out in a given sector.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

A pair of warehouse automation stories worth highlighting here. Berkshire Grey has unveiled a bunch of new fulfillment robots. Per the company,

This new generation of mobile robots offers increased fulfillment throughput at a lower cost point to enable shorter delivery times and support a larger number of SKUs. Unlike fixed conveyor belts and early generation mobile robots, Berkshire Grey’s intelligent fleets harness the power of AI to orchestrate tens to thousands of mobile robots to pick, organize, and deliver items for a wide variety of customer and store orders.

The company will tell you the same thing as every robotics maker: it’s all about helping retailers compete with the behemoth that is Amazon. Fittingly, the ecommerce giant also showed off some new robots this week. Amazon says it’s utilized 350,000 mobile drive units since the company acquired Kiva Systems, which formed the foundation for its Amazon Robotics wing. The post has caused some to wonder whether, in spite of a head start and some massive funding, whether the company is beginning to fall behind a number of aggressive warehouse robotics startups.

Not a ton of funding news this week, but that should change soon. Hot bot summer is nearly upon us. I feel it in the air. Meantime,  please enjoy this submersible drone designed to track a wide range of creators in the mesopelagic “twilight” zone. Developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Mesobot is designed to observe zooplankton, gelatinous animals and more, without disturbing their habitat. Here’s Senior Scientist Dana Yoerger,

We expect that Mesobot will emerge as a vital tool for observing midwater organisms for extended periods, as well as rapidly identifying species observed from vessel biosonars. Because Mesobot can survey, track, and record compelling imagery, we hope to reveal previously unknown behaviors, species interactions, morphological structures, and the use of bioluminescence.

BMW i Ventures invests in autonomous truck technology company Kodiak Robotics

By Rebecca Bellan

BMW’s Silicon Valley-based venture capital arm is investing in Kodiak Robotics, a company that develops autonomous trucking technology. 

Kodiak will use the funds to build out a safety case for its self-driving tech stack so it can more quickly commercialize. It will also work on hiring fresh talent and expanding its truck fleet, with a stated goal of at least doubling the number of vehicles it operates each year. The startup currently has 10 trucks in rotation between its commercial route in Texas and its test pilot in Mountain View, California. 

The terms of the deal were not disclosed. BMW i Ventures usually invests in companies that can provide solutions to BMW’s current and future business, but Kodiak’s CEO and co-founder Don Burnette told TechCrunch that BMW’s investment was purely financial and not strategic, meaning there is currently no technical partnership between the two. 

This new investment comes just a week after tire-maker Bridgestone announced a minority stake in Kodiak. The financials behind that deal were not revealed either. To date, Kodiak has publicly announced $40 million in funding from its Series A, and Burnette says the startup has had several additional investments since then. 

Burnette also shared the company’s plans to achieve driverless operations at scale for less than 10% of what Waymo has publicly raised to date – $5.7 billion – and less than 25% of TuSimple’s total existing fundraise – about $1.94 billion, including the money it raised through its IPO. That leaves us with a number roughly around $500 million. 

“That’s the total amount of money that we think we need to get to driverless, and that’s because we think we’ve been a much more efficient company up until this point, and we will continue to be much more efficient going forward,” said Burnette. 

The BMW i Ventures funding will eventually make up part of Kodiak’s Series B. With this latest investment, the company isn’t trying to further develop its self-driving capabilities or features, but rather it wants to build out its safety case and prove that its system can handle the road with no driver on board, says Burnette. 

“We are building toward a Level 4 autonomy system, but we still have a driver in the seat that’s actually monitoring our system at all times,” said Burnette. “Today, we are technically a Level 2 system, which is true for just about everybody else out there.”

Vehicles with a human driver supervising operations such as steering, brake and acceleration support, as well as things like lane centering and adaptive cruise control fit under the Society of Automobile Engineer’s (SAE) definition of Level 2 autonomy. Level 4 means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention. 

Kodiak says it’s made progress. In January it announced its Kodiak Driver achieved “disengagement-free deliveries” (meaning the autonomous system didn’t have to be switched off for safety reasons) during a commercial route from Dallas to Houston. The company has been running this route out of its Dallas testing and operations facility for two years, and says it’s now achieved a level of maturity where the system can handle anything the highway throws at it. 

“We’re doing really complex and advanced maneuvers, not just handling obvious things like merges and cut-ins and heavy traffic, but also more nuanced challenges like identifying vehicles that are pulled over on the side of the road,” said Burnette. “Our system can automatically identify that and then slow down as required by law, or nudge away from that object to give it more space. It can also consider making a lane change if a lane is available, a way to give even more clearance to the stalled vehicle on the side, and this is exactly how humans drive.”

To get to the point where Kodiak can prove its tech is actually safer than a human driver, and thus suitable for operating commercially at scale, the startup has to build up its total miles driven in simulated environments, structured testing on a private closed track, and in real world driving. 

Burnette says Kodiak is the only company that doesn’t designate one type of sensor as ‘primary,’ and rather takes a comprehensive approach, meaning it’s not a lidar-first or vision-first company. Tesla’s head of AI Andrej Karpathy recently revealed the company’s new supercomputer which takes a vision-only approach, but Burnette fundamentally disagrees with that method. 

“We believe that each of these different modalities have strengths and weaknesses, and our objective is to take advantage of those strengths and cover the weaknesses with other modalities, and so we’ve created a sensor fusion algorithm that allows us to consider which sensors are advantageous in the moments where they give us the most usable information,” said Burnette.

Kodiak doesn’t use HD mapping either, so its trucks see in real time on the road, which allows the Kodiak Driver to be flexible when it comes to changing road conditions or environments. The system is trained using data collected by Kodiak’s trucks, as well as on scenarios devised by its engineers, and that data is auto-labeled using Scale AI, which is one of the ways Kodiak is able to keep down costs, says Burnette. 

Kodiak’s team hails from Google’s original self-driving team, Uber, Lyft and other notable tech companies. Burnette says BMW i Ventures’ investment in the company came after a thorough vetting process in which the firm sent over their autonomous driving experts and dug into the team’s expertise and tech.

Chinese robotaxi unicorn WeRide bags over $600M in 5 months

By Rita Liao

It’s hard to keep up with the fundraising spree in China’s autonomous driving industry these days. Guangzhou- and California-based robotaxi company WeRide, which counts Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance as one of its strategic investors, has raised over $600 million in just under five months.

The four-year-old upstart said in May that its valuation leaped to $3.3 billion in its Series C fundraising. WeRide has kept the details of the round privy until today when it announced the investment was a lofty sum of $310 million from Alliance Ventures, a strategic venture capital fund operated by Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, China Structural Reform Fund, a Chinese state-owned private equity fund, and Pro Capital, which manages China’s CDB Equipment Manufacturing Funds.

It’s unclear how much WeRide has raised since its inception as some of its investments were undisclosed. It pulled in “tens of millions of dollars” from a Series A round.

This is the second time Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi has shelled out money for WeRide following its initial strategic investment back in 2018. The follow-on funding came as the two companies strengthen ties to develop Level 4 driving vehicles for the Chinese market. Electric cars from the Dongfeng-Nissan joint venture, automated by WeRide software, have been providing robotaxi service in Guangzhou for 18 months. WeRide uses Nissan vehicles in California for research and development.

Ashwani Gupta, COO of Nissan, gave an assuring statement about the partnership: “As China stands at the forefront of helping define the future of mobility, we are delighted to partner with WeRide to bring even more innovative technologies and services to enrich people’s lives in China.”

WeRide similarly sounded rosy about the alliance with Nissan. “Throughout the past three years, they have been playing a critical role in supporting WeRide’s autonomous driving platform, hence, enabling us to establish a leading fleet of robotaxis,” said Tony Han, WeRide founder and CEO .

“With the continued support of Nissan, we will accelerate the commercial use of our driverless robotaxis in China.”

Hamburger-flipping robotics company Miso introduces an automated beverage dispenser

By Brian Heater

How do you follow up a burger-flipping robot? If you’re Miso Robotics (which you likely are, if you’ve created a burger-flipping robot), the answer is simple: beverages. The robotics startup continues to focus on the fast food service industry with the planned launch of an automated beverage-dispensing robot.

The system, which is being created as part of a partnership with beverage dispenser manufacturer Lancer, brings an added level of automation to your standard fast food fountain. It has a point of sale system directly integrated, which kicks off the process of pouring, sealing and advancing the drink. Beyond that, it’s integrated with a larger sales system to ensure that it’s getting orders right, between in-person customers and delivery drivers.

Image Credits: Miso Robotics

Basically it’s a much smarter version of the fountain you encounter in every fast food restaurant and movie theater. Naturally, the company says that interest in the category has only increased amid labor shortages and a pandemic that froze much of the available workforce over the past year and a half.

“Lancer has a legacy of stand-out industry quality and shares in our vision for beverage innovation and futuristic design,” Miso Chief Strategy Officer Jake Brewer said in a press release tied to this morning’s news. “Order fulfillment is a major factor for customer satisfaction and operators can’t afford to have a beverage left behind when a delivery driver or customer visits. We are extremely excited to create a product that will not only make the lives of those working in commercial kitchens better, but will be a game changer for the industry as a whole to deliver a world-class customer experience.”

Image Credits: Miso Robotics

Speaking of striking while the iron is hot, the company is also using the opportunity to announce a planned Series D, following up on a recently closed $25 million Series C.

Toyota Research Institute shows how its robotics work with difficult surfaces in the home

By Brian Heater

Following this morning’s announcement that Hyundai has closed its acquisition of Boston Dynamics, another automotive company has posted some robotics news. The Toyota Research Institute announcement is decidedly less earthshaking than that big deal — if anything, it’s more of a progress check on what the division has been working on.

Of course, incremental updates tend to be the name of the game when it comes to robotics of all sorts. This does, however, shed some interesting light on the work TRI has been doing in the home. Today the company announced some key advances to robotics it has designed to perform domestic tasks.

“TRI roboticists were able to train robots to understand and operate in complicated situations that confuse most other robots, including recognizing and responding to transparent and reflective surfaces in a variety of circumstances,” the Institute writes in a blog post.

Image Credits: Toyota Research Institute

With settings like kitchens, the robots come in contact with a variety of transparent and reflective surfaces — a hurdle for traditional vision systems. Specifically in the kitchen, things like a transparent glass or reflective appliance can create an issue.

“To overcome this, TRI roboticists developed a novel training method to perceive the 3D geometry of the scene while also detecting objects and surfaces,” TRI Robotics VP Max Bajracharya said in a post describing the research. “This combination enables researchers to use large amounts of synthetic data to train the system.” Using synthetic data also alleviates the need for time-consuming, expensive or impractical data collection and labeling.

With an aging population in its native Japan, Toyota has made eldercare a key focus in its ongoing robotics research. So it makes a lot of sense that sort of robotics tasks form a core of much of its research in the category, as well as those elements that bleed into the work it’s doing on Woven City. And certainly the company gets credit for putting in some work here, before the orchestrated appearances we’ve seen of robotics offerings from companies like Samsung.

Image Credits: Toyota Research Institute

“It’s not only about keeping people in their homes longer and living independently,” Bajracharya  recently told me in an interview. “That’s one aspect of it — but in Japan, in 20-30 years, the number of people who are over 65 will roughly be the same as the number of people who are under 65. That’s going to have a really interesting socioeconomic impact, in terms of the workforce. It’s probably going to be much older and we at Toyota are looking at how these people can keep doing their jobs, so they can get the fulfillment from doing their jobs or staying at home longer. We don’t want to just replace the people. We really think about how we stay human-centered and amplify people.”

Hyundai completes deal for controlling interest in Boston Dynamics

By Brian Heater

Hyundai this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The deal, which values the innovative robotics company at $1.1 billion, was announced in late-2020. The companies have not disclosed any future financial details.

The South Korean automotive giant now owns a controlling interest in Boston Dynamics, previously belonging to SoftBank. The Japanese investment company was effectively a transitional owner, purchasing Boston Dynamics from Google, which owned the company for just over three years.

While its time with Softbank wasn’t much longer than its stint under Google/Alphabet X, Boston Dynamics saw the commercialization of its first two products since launching nearly 30 years ago. The company brought its quadrupedal robot Spot to market and this year announced the (still upcoming) launch of Stretch, an updated version of its warehouse robot, Handle.

In a recent appearance at TechCrunch’s Mobility event, Hyundai’s Ernestine Fu discussed the planned acquisition of an 80% controlling interest in the company. Fu noted that Hyundai’s New Horizon Studios has previewed multiple “walking” car concepts that look poised to build on decades of Boston Dynamics research.

“With New Horizon Studios, the mandate is reimagining what you can do when you combine robotics with traditional wheeled locomotion, like walking robots and walking vehicles,” Fu told TechCrunch. “Obviously the technology that [Boston Dynamics] has put together plays a key role in enabling those sorts of concepts to come to life.”

As it has changed hands over the years, Boston Dynamics has long insisted on maintaining its own research wing, which has given us less commercial technology, like the humanoid robot, Atlas. How this will function under the umbrella of Hyundai remains to be seen, though the company does seem to have a vested interest in maintaining a forward-looking approach.

“We and Hyundai share a view of the transformational power of mobility and look forward to working together to accelerate our plans to enable the world with cutting-edge automation, and to continue to solve the world’s hardest robotics challenges for our customers,” Boston Dynamics CEO Rob Playter said when the deal was announced.

 

Last-mile, landscaping and leaping robots

By Brian Heater

I spoke to Refraction AI co-founder/CTO Matthew Johnson-Roberson on the occasion of the Michigan startup’s $4.2 million seed raise. This week we posted a Q&A where he answers a wider range of topics about the delivery robotics company, and this bit jumped out at me:

It still boggles my mind that nobody has tried to copy what we’re doing. There were 10 or 12 sidewalk robot companies in early 2015, 2016 and 2017. Many of them, with a few exceptions, went out of business.

Refraction autonomous delivery robot

Image Credits: Refraction

The first part of the quote points to seemingly obvious truths that are still worth reiterating here. First: If you spot a need in the market you believe you can address, go for it. Second: There are likely even more opportunities for robotics and automation than we’ve considered. The second sentence seemingly negates the second point to some degree, but more than anything, I think it’s an indictment of how merciless this industry can be.

High risk/high reward, and all that, but even with a great idea, smart people and a healthy raise, bad timing can still land you flat on your face. For now, it seems, the timing is right. Delivery robotics are very much an industry that has been accelerated by the pandemic, in terms of interest, innovation and, of course, funding.

FedEx-Nuro

Image Credits: Nuro

As I noted last week, I spoke to Gatik co-founder and chief engineer Apeksha Kumavat, Nuro head of operations Amy Jones Satrom and Starship Technologies co-founder and CTO Ahti Heinla at last week’s TC Sessions: Mobility event. Here’s what Kumavat had to say about that acceleration:

Even before the pandemic hit, this whole e-commerce trend was already on the rise. No one wants their deliveries to be done after a week or two weeks. Everyone is expecting them to be done on the same day, as well as curbside pickup options. There was already a rise in the expectations of e-commerce and on-demand deliveries even before the pandemic hit. Post-March 2020, what we have seen is a huge increase in that trajectory.

More big news from Nuro (try saying that five times, fast), the delivery company just signed a deal with FedEx, marking a big step into package delivery.

Image Credits: Scythe Robotics

This week, I also spoke to another pair of robotics startups that have emerged from the pandemic with sizable rounds. Boulder-based Scythe emerged from stealth with a $13.8 million Series A, bringing its total funding to $18.6 million. The company specializes in landscaping robotics, starting with a mower. Given the potential market size, I’m honestly surprised there aren’t more companies doing this.

Interestingly, the company is offering a RaaS (robotics as a service) model, which is becoming increasingly popular in the space. Here it’s charging customers based on the number of acres mowed.

Image Credits: Dusty Robotics

Bay Area-based Dusty Robotics, meanwhile, raised a $16.5 million Series A, bringing its total raised to $23.7 million. Construction is a huge potential market with a lot of interest and players. Dusty’s offering is interesting and fairly unique, effectively printing plans on the floor of a construction site. The company likens it to “Ikea Instructions.” Here’s co-founder and CEO, Tessa Lau:

We just released our third-generation hardware platform, which was designed from the ground up by our team in Mountain View to be purpose-built for producing accurate and speedy layout on construction sites. We’ve been working on this product since fall of 2018 and have incorporated lessons learned from completing over 1 million square feet of production layout into this third-generation design.

And for good measure, here’s a fun one from Tencent Robotics.

IEEE Spectrum spotted the robot, which was actually announced a few weeks ago. According to the paper where Ollie appeared, the wheeled robot is more experimental than practical, but it’s capable of some pretty impressive feats none the less:

Experimental results demonstrate that the linear output regulation can maintain the standing of the robot, and that nonlinear controller can balance the robot under an initial starting angle far away from the equilibrium point, or under a changing robot height.

There isn’t a ton of info about Ollie available yet, but it sure is fun to watch.

 

Self-driving trucks startup Kodiak Robotics snags investment, partnership from Bridgestone

By Kirsten Korosec

Tire-making giant Bridgestone has taken a minority stake in Kodiak Robotics, the Silicon Valley-based startup developing autonomous trucks, as part of a broader partnership to test and develop smart tire technology.

While the terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Kodiak Robotics co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told TechCrunch that this is a direct financial investment. Bridgestone CTO Nizar Trigui has also joined the Kodiak board as an observer.

The deal involves more than capital. The two companies have also formed a strategic partnership focused on advancing Bridgestone’s tire tech and fleet management system. Kodiak will use Bridgestone’s sensor-laden tires and fleet management system on its self-driving trucks, which are used to carry freight between Dallas and Houston as part of its testing program. The company recently said it is expanding its freight carrying pilots to San Antonio. Kodiak also tests its self-driving trucks — always with a safety operator behind the wheel — in and around Mountain View, California.

Semi-trucks travel 100,000 to 150,000 miles a year, Burnette said, adding that tire integrity and tire monitoring are integral to the safety of trucking, whether they’re driven by a human or computer.

“Safety of an autonomy system ultimately comes down to our ability to manipulate the tires that touch the road when you are accelerating or braking or steering,” Burnette said. “You need to be able to rely on your tires to actually perform the way they are expected to perform otherwise your safety envelope is not necessarily guaranteed.”

Kodiak will use these smart tires to monitor pressure, temperature and even measure the loads on the wheels, which plays a role in vehicle dynamics and maneuverability. Kodiak will share the data it collects with Bridgestone, which the company can use to improve the chemistry of its tires.

Tire companies like Bridgestone already collect basic information from telematics providers that helps determine where trucks are driven, what types of roads they use as well as tire pressure and temperature. Predictive models are then developed based on that data.  Autonomous vehicle companies bring an added value to tire companies, Burnette noted. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks are loaded with sensors of their own, which allows the company to collect massive amounts of driving data that can help Bridgestone understand exactly how its tires are being used.

“Autonomy providers like Kodiak have all of the raw data specifically on how the trucks are being driven,” he said. “We know what the forces are, we know what the steering is, we know what the braking pressures that were being commanded in real time. And so we can gather a wealth of data that has never been previously possible to collect for companies like Bridgestone.”

This allows Bridgestone to build predictive models that will more accurately be able to predict the eventual lifetime and also possibly give warnings to when tires may fail out of field. “And that’s ultimately what Kodiak  is really interested in,” Burnette added.

The news follows Kodiak’s announcement in May that it was partnering with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its autonomous vehicle technology in Asia. The ultimate aim of the SK partnership is to sell and distribute Kodiak’s self-driving technology in the region. Kodiak will examine how it can use SK’s products, components and technology for its autonomous system, including artificial intelligence microprocessors and advanced emergency braking systems. Both companies have also agreed to work together to provide fleet management services for customers in Asia.

Scale AI CEO Alex Wang weighs in on software bugs and what will make AV tech good enough

By Darrell Etherington

Scale co-founder and CEO Alex Wang joined us at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2021 this week to discuss his company’s role in the autonomous driving industry and how it’s changed in the five years since its founding. Scale helps large and small AV players establish reliable “ground truth” through data annotation and management, and along the way, the standards for what that means have shifted as the industry matures.

Good data is the “good bones” of autonomous driving systems

Even if two algorithms in autonomous driving might be created more or less equal, their real-world performance could vary dramatically based on what they’re consuming in terms of input data. That’s where Scale’s value prop to the industry starts, and Wang explains why:

If you think about a traditional software system, the thing that will separate a good software system from a bad software system is the code, the quality of the code. For an AI system, which all of these self-driving vehicles or autonomous vehicles are, it’s the data that really separates an amazing algorithm from a bad algorithm. And so one thing we saw was that being one of the stewards and shepherds of high-quality data was going to be incredibly important for the industry, and that’s what’s played out. We work with many of the great companies in the space, from Aurora to Nuro to Toyota to General Motors, and our work with all of them is ensuring that they have really a solid data foundation, so they can build the rest of their stacks on top of it. (Time stamp: 06:24)

ISEE brings autonomy to shipping hubs with self-driving yard trucks

By Devin Coldewey

Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.

Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.

Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.

ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao.  “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”

Two ISEE trucks without containers on the back.

Image Credits: ISEE

The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.

“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.

The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.

Overhead view of autonomous and ordinary trucks moving around a shipping yard.

Image Credits: ISEE

Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.

Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.

The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”

To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.

It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.

“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.

ISEE co-founders Yibiao Zhao (top), Debbie Yu (left), and Chris Baker.

ISEE Founders

“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”

Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.

So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

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