Refraction AI calls itself the Goldilocks of robotic delivery. The Ann Arbor-based company, which recently raised a $4.2 million seed round and expanded operations to Austin, was founded by two University of Michigan professors who think delivery via full-size autonomous vehicles (AV) is not nearly as close as many promise and sidewalk delivery comes with too many hassles and not enough payoff. Their “just right” solution? Find a middle path, or rather, a bike path.
The company’s REV-1 robot, which co-founder and CTO Matthew Johnson-Roberson debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage in 2019, was built on a foundation of a bicycle. At about 4 feet tall and 32 inches wide, the three-wheeled vehicle can travel at up to 15 miles per hour, which means it can stop quickly to avoid obstacles while still being faster than a human.
The intermediate speed also means that the REV-1 doesn’t need to see as far ahead as a full-size AV, which allows it to function well on radars, sensors and cameras instead of requiring expensive lidar, according to the company.
Johnson-Roberson has spent nearly 20 years in academic robotics. Universities are home to many of the advances in field robotics, but the average person doesn’t see many such applications everyday when they look out their window. This desire to make something that is useful to the general public has been a huge motivator for the academic-turned-founder.
The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity.
TechCrunch: You unveiled Refraction AI on the TechCrunch stage two years ago. How has it evolved since?
Matthew Johnson-Roberson: It’s been a really exciting ride. At that time, we had one vehicle — the one that we rolled out on stage — and now we have 25 vehicles in Ann Arbor and Austin, which we just announced. So things have changed quite a bit in the intervening years. We had already predicted a lot of changes around food delivery, specifically, and lots of those were accelerated by the pandemic.