Business

Dinner is servo driven

I was up to my neck with CES planning – and I suppose this week I stopped planning the planning. There’s an odd interruption to getting pitches for the millionth UV light disinfecting robot as you weigh the pros and cons of attending a show in person amid the latest surge in variation. Ultimately we decided not to go to Vegas this time, but I expect we’ll have a lot more to discuss for the newsletter in a couple of weeks.

Almost two years later, it feels so strange that CES and then our Robotics Session were the last events I personally attended. Having helped organize the latter and lead TechCrunch’s CES efforts, I understand the importance of not taking these decisions lightly.

And I feel like attending conferences in person is still beneficial for me, especially when it comes to evaluating robots. There is a limitation on how well you can see a robot over a zoom call.

If anything, all of this has really made it clear how mainstream adoption of robotic systems feels at the same time extremely close and yet still far away. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I got a lot more robotics pitches for this CES – a show that was conceived as a guiding star for the following year. They represent a broad spectrum, from consumer to industrial – and everything in between.

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the excitement and investment in the industry, but the actual pace of adoption varies widely from category to category. The two examples we’ve looked at so far for our year-end recap are quite advanced. As before in production, warehouse and fulfillment robotics are currently a reality. If you’ve recently bought something online, there’s a pretty good chance a robot helped you get it at some point.

Delivery robots are tougher. There are a number of pilots out there, and depending on where you live (especially if it’s near a college campus) you might have seen one of them drive past – even if it doesn’t have your food direct to you brought. Walkways are generally less controlled spaces than warehouses and there is regulatory bureaucracy to bring them into the world.

This week I want to talk to you about who – or maybe what – is actually preparing the food that these robots deliver to your door or not.

Credit: (Photo by Paul Marotta / Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Before we get into that, we asked Colin Angle, Co-Founder and CEO of iRobot, to reflect on the past year in robotics and give us a forecast for the year ahead.

What was the defining robotics / AI / automation trend in 2021? Warehouse automation, assisted driving technology – and Detection of faeces, of course – were all areas in which we saw breakthroughs in 2021. It was a remarkable year in which the meteoric surge in online shopping (which nearly broke through 2020) appeared to be working remarkably well, largely due to large investments in automation. I actually saw TV commercials for self-driving trucks aimed at Central America. Is this really happening? And I’m proud to say that one of the dirty, seldom discussed challenges of the robotic vacuum cleaner is now in the rearview mirror, with the advent of highly reliable visual object recognition at a consumer price. I think it’s safe to say that 2021 was a year of transformation for robots.

What will 2022 bring for these categories? As we go into 2022, I would love to see real progress in the smart home that people have been waiting for. In the current version of the Smart Home, the complexity is too high and the user-friendliness too low – but the tools are created so that experience-oriented ecosystems arise and increase in efficiency and system simplicity. Therefore, I see 2022 not only as a year of sustained acceleration in the industry among the regular suspects, but also as one in which we will see a significant step forward in the thoughtful integration of robotics into our daily lives. It’s exciting to see the momentum growing on so many fronts!

And now for one of the most uncomfortable transitions I’ve had to make in my long and illustrious career, we’re moving from poop detection to food prep [leaving a note here for when corporate asks why my new newsletter lost all of its subscribers in its third week].

Food shoot in the Los Angeles Times test kitchen via Getty Images of a Margherita pizza being taken out of the stone oven, taken on March 11, 2009. (Photo by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Last year was a big year for robotic food preparation. Before the pandemic, prominent start-ups involved in this area were few and far between. Some – including in particular Too robotics – panned out of the category. But along with an influx of venture capital for robotics in general, there is increasing automation of the restaurant business. The main reasons are two that you’ve probably known by heart for almost two years. First, there is a massive shortage of staff in the US. Second, robots don’t get sick, nor do humans.

If I had to summarize the current state of food robotics in four words, it would be:

  • Pizza
  • Peel
  • Fast food (yes i cheated by making that one word)
  • Kiosks

Credit: picnic

The first two are high on the list for similar reasons. If you want to automate a food, it has to be something popular and relatively consistent. Sure, there are tons of different toppings, but for a robot, making pizza is a pretty straightforward experience: batter, sauce, cheese, toppings, cook, repeat. Company like picnic and XRobotics want to pick up where Zume left off.

Credit: espionage

Bowls fill a similar niche. They have grown in popularity over the past few years and work around a fairly simple template. Even with variations between toppings and bases such as salad, quinoa and Co., the principle is quite simple. So it’s probably no surprise that California’s fast-casual salad chain, Sweetgreens, is joining in August. leaned back the takeover of the MIT spinout Spyce. The move followed a similar takeover by DoorDash, the bought the salad making robot company Chowbotics in February.

Miso runs the fast food fee currently announced with a number of large partnerships. The company’s robot for turning and deep-frying hamburgers cannot yet completely replace kitchen staff, but it is becoming more and more powerful from generation to generation.

Credit: call me

Kiosks, on the other hand, are designed to largely take people out of the equation. The solution has been gaining momentum recently due to the labor shortage mentioned above. Human interaction with the systems is largely limited to loading, maintenance and ordering. But with the right technique, you can effectively have a self-contained kitchen that prepares fresh food at the touch of a button, like at Products like Nommi, whose recent deal with C3 brings food by Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto into the 24/7 food preparation machine.

As for this week’s news, things have slowed down a bit before the holidays. However, we did manage to take a look at what Hyundai is cooking for this CES. The automaker has really redoubled its robotics efforts, including acquiring Boston Dynamics. The new Mobile Eccentric Droid (MobED) is a platform in every way. It’s a literal one; a four-wheeled mobility device with a staging area in the middle. It can also accommodate a range of different functions, from conference calls to package delivery to smart strollers.

Credit: Hyundai

About its stabilization technology, Hyundai says:

The posture control system based on an eccentric mechanism also stabilizes posture by adjusting the height of each wheel according to the ground environment. The MobED’s 12-inch pneumatic tires also help to absorb shocks and vibrations.

Tiger Global, meanwhile, continues its shopping spree. This week the company ran a $ 30 million Series B for Pasadena, California’s elementary school. The round, which also includes Fika Ventures, Fathom Capital, Riot VC and Toyota Ventures, brings total funding for the machine vision startup to $ 47.5 million. Founder and CEO Arye Barnehama told TechCrunch:

During the pandemic, there was a major labor shortage in production and logistics, which began before the pandemic but has increased significantly. As companies continue to want to automate without relying on expensive and hard-to-find engineers, our business has scaled because we can offer them AI solutions without code.

Before we go, a $ 7 million Series A round from Unbox Robotics. 3one4 Capital led the round for the India-based logistics robotics company. Sixth Sense Ventures and Redstart Labs also participated, as did a number of existing investors, including SOSV. The company says the funding will go into hiring, technical development, and expansion into new areas.

Credit: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

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