The robotics category has been building to a kind of critical mass in recent years, but the past six months of the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed many otherwise wary investors over the top. Today, Shenzhen-based Pudu Robotics announced that it has completed a Series B in excess of $15 million, with Beijing food services group, Meituan as the sole investor.
Pudu describes itself as a “smart delivery robotics” company, with a majority of its products falling within the food services category. There are multiple robot SKUs for food delivery and dish return, all of which are indoor models. Rather than focusing on delivery apps, the robots are designed for a variety of scenarios under the same roof, including hotels, restaurants and office buildings.
Last month, Pudu noted that it had deployed “hundreds” of units to hospitals in South Korea and its native China amid the pandemic. Other existing clients include restaurants and hotels, all of which are looking for methods for reducing human contact as a means of transmitting the novel coronavirus. In total, it says its robots have been deployed in 200 cities across 20 countries.
“Nonhuman physical contact means safety, and automation means saving human efforts. In the event of human life, these two advantages will be magnified,” CEO Zhang Tao said in a press release issued last month. “Many technology companies have played an important role in intelligent disinfection, unmanned delivery and intelligent diagnosis during COVID-19, which made an irreversible influence to the public health system.”
The “irreversible” bit remains to be seen, of course. What does seem certain, however, is that COVID-19 will be an important testing ground for the efficacy and need for these sorts of technologies.
What seemed like, at best, an indulgence a year ago is now being viewed as a potentially necessary part of the food-handling process. The virus has certainly driven investor interest, but it will be up to the startups to show they’re ready to deliver on the promise.