Last-mile, landscaping and leaping robots

Robotics roundup: Thoughts on delivery robots in a post-pandemic world

I spoke to Refraction AI co-founder/CTO Matthew Johnson-Roberson on the occasion of the Michigan startup’s $4.2 million seed raise. This week we posted a Q&A where he answers a wider range of topics about the delivery robotics company, and this bit jumped out at me:

It still boggles my mind that nobody has tried to copy what we’re doing. There were 10 or 12 sidewalk robot companies in early 2015, 2016 and 2017. Many of them, with a few exceptions, went out of business.

Refraction autonomous delivery robot

Image Credits: Refraction

The first part of the quote points to seemingly obvious truths that are still worth reiterating here. First: If you spot a need in the market you believe you can address, go for it. Second: There are likely even more opportunities for robotics and automation than we’ve considered. The second sentence seemingly negates the second point to some degree, but more than anything, I think it’s an indictment of how merciless this industry can be.

High risk/high reward, and all that, but even with a great idea, smart people and a healthy raise, bad timing can still land you flat on your face. For now, it seems, the timing is right. Delivery robotics are very much an industry that has been accelerated by the pandemic, in terms of interest, innovation and, of course, funding.


Image Credits: Nuro

As I noted last week, I spoke to Gatik co-founder and chief engineer Apeksha Kumavat, Nuro head of operations Amy Jones Satrom and Starship Technologies co-founder and CTO Ahti Heinla at last week’s TC Sessions: Mobility event. Here’s what Kumavat had to say about that acceleration:

Even before the pandemic hit, this whole e-commerce trend was already on the rise. No one wants their deliveries to be done after a week or two weeks. Everyone is expecting them to be done on the same day, as well as curbside pickup options. There was already a rise in the expectations of e-commerce and on-demand deliveries even before the pandemic hit. Post-March 2020, what we have seen is a huge increase in that trajectory.

More big news from Nuro (try saying that five times, fast), the delivery company just signed a deal with FedEx, marking a big step into package delivery.

Image Credits: Scythe Robotics

This week, I also spoke to another pair of robotics startups that have emerged from the pandemic with sizable rounds. Boulder-based Scythe emerged from stealth with a $13.8 million Series A, bringing its total funding to $18.6 million. The company specializes in landscaping robotics, starting with a mower. Given the potential market size, I’m honestly surprised there aren’t more companies doing this.

Interestingly, the company is offering a RaaS (robotics as a service) model, which is becoming increasingly popular in the space. Here it’s charging customers based on the number of acres mowed.

Image Credits: Dusty Robotics

Bay Area-based Dusty Robotics, meanwhile, raised a $16.5 million Series A, bringing its total raised to $23.7 million. Construction is a huge potential market with a lot of interest and players. Dusty’s offering is interesting and fairly unique, effectively printing plans on the floor of a construction site. The company likens it to “Ikea Instructions.” Here’s co-founder and CEO, Tessa Lau:

We just released our third-generation hardware platform, which was designed from the ground up by our team in Mountain View to be purpose-built for producing accurate and speedy layout on construction sites. We’ve been working on this product since fall of 2018 and have incorporated lessons learned from completing over 1 million square feet of production layout into this third-generation design.

And for good measure, here’s a fun one from Tencent Robotics.

IEEE Spectrum spotted the robot, which was actually announced a few weeks ago. According to the paper where Ollie appeared, the wheeled robot is more experimental than practical, but it’s capable of some pretty impressive feats none the less:

Experimental results demonstrate that the linear output regulation can maintain the standing of the robot, and that nonlinear controller can balance the robot under an initial starting angle far away from the equilibrium point, or under a changing robot height.

There isn’t a ton of info about Ollie available yet, but it sure is fun to watch.