Down in Christchurch, New Zealand a team of roboticists at Invert Robotics has commercialized an inspection robot that uses tiny suction cups on a series of treads and a specialty chemical to create a technology that has robots literally climbing the walls.
Meanwhile, a world away in Pittsburgh, Gecko Robotics is tackling much the same problem with high-powered magnets and an inspection robot of its own.
Both companies have recently closed on new financing, with Invert raising $8.8 million from investors including Finistere Ventures and Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley, and Gecko Robotics wrapping up a $9 million round, which began fundraising last June, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
For the food-focused investment fund, Finistere Ventures, the benefit of a wall-climbing robot is apparent in looking at supply chain issues, according to co-founder and partner Arama Kukutai.
“The immediate value of Invert Robotics across the global food supply chain – from ensuring food and beverages are stored and transported in safe, pathogen-free environments, to avoiding catastrophic failures in agrichemical-industry containers and plants – is undeniably impressive,” Kukutai said in a statement. “However, we see the potential applications as almost limitless.”
Plant inspections in the food, chemicals and aviation industry are dangerous endeavors, and automation can make a significant improvement in how companies address the critical function of quality assurance, according to investors and entrepreneurs.
“There has been virtually no innovation in industrial services technology for decades,” Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens told TechCrunch in a statement. “Gecko’s robots massively reduce facility shutdown time while gathering critical performance data and preventing potentially fatal accidents. The demand for what they are building is huge.”
While Gecko uses powerful magnets to secure its robots to surfaces, Invert Robotics uses powerful suction to enable its robots to climb the walls.
“If you think of a plunger and how a plunger adheres to a surface… it creates a perfect seal with the surface, you find it very hard to lift the plunger off the surface,” said managing director, Neil Fletcher. “We’ve taken that concept and we’ve made it able to slide along the surface without losing the vacuum. It’s a fine balance between maintaining the vacuum that we’ve created and leaking enough air into the vacuum to allow the unit to slide along and we coat the suction cups with a special chemical that reduces the friction.”
Both agriculture and chemicals represent billion-dollar markets for non-destructive testing, Fletcher said, and the company is already working with companies like Dow Chemical and BASF to assess their processing assets and ensure that they’re fit for use.
Yamaha has a strategic interest in developing these types of robotics systems, which prompted the investment from the firm’s skunkworks and investment shop out of Silicon Valley.
“As part of Yamaha’s long-term vision supporting the development of advanced robots to improve workplace efficiency and safety, Invert Robotics’ technology and its value proposition made a positive impression on our investment committee,” added Craig Boshier, partner and general manager for Yamaha Motor Ventures in Australia and New Zealand. “Importantly, the robotic technology’s adaptability to different environments and industries is well supported by an engaged team. That combination, with proper capitalization, positions Invert Robotics for success in its global market expansion.”
Pittsburgh’s own Gecko Robotics has similar aspirations, and an investor base including Mark Cuban, Founders Fund, The Westly Group, Justin Kan and Y Combinator.
Since 2012, the company has been working on its technology using ultrasound transducers and a high-def camera to scan boiler walls as the company’s robot would scale them.
Given the billions of dollars in demand, and the potential life-saving applications, it’s no wonder investors are clambering to get a piece of the market.