Today is the big one Day! After months of working with summaries, Actuator is finally getting into your inbox as the newest member of the TechCrunch newsletter family. I’ve written 40 of these things since our silent pre-test launch in February (we called ourselves the Robotics Roundup for a few unfortunate months). You can check out the full backlog here, and if you’re still reading this over TechCrunch.com, be sure to register here.
As we near the end of another very strange year, I plan to spend the next few weeks exploring the biggest robotics trends of 2021. Think of it like Spotify Wrapped, just instead of an embarrassing number of Steely Dan songs (I’m definitely not talking about myself here) let’s take a look at the automation, AI, research, and investment trends that have shaped the past 12 months. And in doing so, we should get a better picture of the world we are entering.
I’ve been threatening to publish a robotics newsletter at TC for a number of years – probably almost as far as ours first big robotics event in Boston, already in 2017. It’s been a boring streak for a while, but honestly, I don’t think we could have picked a better time to bring this thing to market than now.
As we stare at the two year anniversary of a global pandemic, it is clear that for many of us there may be no “normal” to return to – for better or for worse. For those in the robotics industry, this is their first glimpse into something big, bold, and exciting. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to say we could make something better out of this (and believe me, the last 21 months have been utterly failing on a personal level), but it is undeniably high time the way we pretty much did do everything to reconsider. Logistics, healthcare, gastronomy, agriculture, retail – all of these categories will be fundamentally changed by COVID-19. And robotics plays an important role in this transformation.
It’s been almost two years and countless industries are still under tremendous pressure to fill positions. Those who previously thought that full automation was a distant pipe dream are investigating these solutions much more aggressively, and as a result, we’ve seen a huge surge in investment across a wide range of categories. Concepts that VCs would traditionally have denied as being too far away have made their way to the top of term sheets around the world.
I’ve been writing about technology professionally for a long time, and it’s the first time I’ve heard people speak seriously about the ubiquity of robots in the present tense. Just before Thanksgiving, me spoke to Matthew Johnson-Roberson, who had just been appointed director of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. He told me:
We are really at this tipping point when it comes to large robotic field systems deployed around the world. Someday, I want you to look out your window, wherever you are in the US and the world, and see a robot doing something useful.
We are of course not quite there yet. But I basically believe that we are much closer to this goal than we were in January 2020. Part of our future role here is to discuss how to get there. We should also take the opportunity to discuss the consequences of the journey. What all of this means for things like jobs, quality of life and the environment, for example. And, not to say too briefly, how we can ensure that robotics continues to serve us and not the other way around.
Signing up for an unlimited weekly newsletter was a bit daunting at first. But every week for some time now, one thing is certain: We won’t run out of discussion material anytime soon.
Hell, I might have taken the week off (happy belated Thanksgiving to those who celebrate), but robotics didn’t. My buddy Frederic is in beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada for this week AWS re: Invent Conference. Amazon kicked off the show by rolling out a robotics fleet management program. The problem RoboRunner tries solving is one that we have taken over from various startups. How can companies in particular get different brands of robotic systems to work well together?
Here is AWS CTO Werner Vogels:
There are few successful commercial robotics companies left today, and there are a few important reasons why. First, it is difficult to find a suitable solution for the robotic product market because real-world environments are dynamic and unpredictable. Hence, combining the right niche with the right skills can be a challenge. Second, building robots with high levels of autonomy and intelligence requires multidisciplinary skills that are difficult to find and recruit. Third, robotics is capital intensive and requires large upfront investments in sensors, actuators and mechanical hardware, even if these are already commercially available.
Can Amazon devour industrial robotics fleet management like it has been doing … well, basically everything else? The company certainly has the infrastructure and resources to face the disjointed category. It now also has a foothold in the world of early-stage robotics startups, courtesy of a new partnership with MassRobotics. Amazon is partnering with the Boston-based tech hub to bring a new robotic accelerator specifically for AWS applications.
Autonomous delivery company Nuro just announced another massive hike. That final $ 600 million round was led by Tiger Global Management (because of course). This brings the company’s valuation to a whopping 8.6 billion US dollars. Speaking of funding, Co-Founder Dave Ferguson told TechCrunch, “With the boost from this new funding, we’re moving our focus to commercializing and scaling production of our third generation vehicle at our new facility in Southern Nevada.”
If we talk about the dirty jobs that automation could one day replace, cleaning public toilets is undoubtedly high on the list. Michael Levy, the CEO of Somatic, left me a message to indicate that the company’s robot has reached a new milestone in automatic bathroom cleaning, as shown in the following video:
The company, which practically came out of cover at our robotics event last year, developed a system capable of traveling in an elevator, opening doors, and scrubbing bathrooms.
As Levy told me last year, “The reason bathrooms are such a good application is because everything is bolted to the floor. Things move in predictable ways. All commercial bathrooms built after 1994 are ADA compliant. What is good for robotics is that it creates a certain design. “
Another big funding for a robotics agtech company – this time in China. Founded by former DJI chief scientist Wu Di, FJDynamics just announced that it has completed a $ 70 million Series B for its harvesting robot. Rita had an open conversation with Wu, who stated, “You can have the most advanced AI algorithms. But if the technology doesn’t work on the production line or on the farm because you have no industry experience, what use does your technology have for people? “
Because of me.
In terms of more general trends to watch out for, anecdotally there appears to be an upward trend in crowded capital rounds. Miso Robotics, which makes the hamburger cooking robot Flippy, just announced a $ 35 million Series B crowdfunding distributed to over 8,200 investors (a list of new and returning names).
Our Series D round ended last night, it was a historic success!
💲 $ 35 + million raised
🤝 8,200+ investors new & returning
Thank you again for your support and participation in our story! We have lots of exciting updates, partnerships, and pilots nearby so stay tuned! pic.twitter.com/RBnne1u1aJ
– Miso robotics (@misorobotics) November 19, 2021
It’s a big crowd in terms of crowdfunding – and a trend worth keeping an eye on. Certainly there is a lot to be said for broad consumer participation, but one wonders what this path means for investor confidence, among other things.
Earlier this week Stellar Pizza announced plans to launch its robotic pizza cooker cart sometime next spring in Los Angeles. Founded by a trio of SpaceX expats, the company says its trucks are capable of making a pizza from scratch in less than five minutes and producing a pizza every 45 seconds at maximum capacity.
According to his press material:
With a revolutionary new pizza machine, Stellar Pizza transforms raw pizza dough and fresh toppings into a fully baked pizza in less than five minutes. With the maximum ability to produce a pizza every 45 seconds, the food truck can deliver a larger quantity of fresh gourmet pizzas more consistently than its counterparts from the stationary trade. The pizza robot process begins with a freshly made ball of raw pizza dough that is pressed and shaped into a round pizza crust. Then homemade sauce and fresh toppings are added. Finally, the raw pizza is placed in one of four custom-made high-temperature ovens to bake it perfectly.
Hopefully, the robotic pizza cart business turns out to be smoother for Stellar than at Zume, which has since gone through one of the strangest turning points in recent times and is now Production of sustainable packaging with the help of ABB.
Credit: UC RiversideNeusbot join us this week from UC Riverside. The soft robot moves while iron oxide and copper nanorods convert light into heat. A team from the school believes the technology could help clean up oil spills in the future. “Usually people send ships to the site of an oil spill to clean them by hand,” said researcher Zhiwei Li in a press release linked to the news. “Neusbot could do this job like a vacuum robot, but on the surface of the water.”
A funny one from ETH Zurich excludes us. The school uses construction robots to blur the lines between architecture and art, and to pay homage to the hanging gardens of Babylon – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A minor matter of the piece by Devin, which is surprising and absolutely brand-typical at the same time:
The project is a kind of giant sculptural planter, “hanging gardens”, inspired by the legendary structures of the ancient city of Babylon. (By the way, it was my ancestor, Robert Koldewey, who excavated / plundered the famous Ishtar Gate.)
Learn something new about one of your employees every day.