I’ve been working on a big project the past several days (more on that soon), which means, unfortunately, I’ve been away from the daily breaking news. That means, in turn, that I really haven’t been on top of the big robotics news this week. So let’s use this column as an opportunity to play a little catch-up.
Before we get to that, however, I did have the opportunity to sit down with an interesting robotics company that had a unique pandemic experience.
It’s fair to say the world was a different place when Diligent Robotics announced its Series A. March 2020 wasn’t all that long ago, of course, but the worlds of healthcare and hospitals have seen tremendous strain amid a pandemic whose scope and length few could have predicted. Demand for the company’s nurse assisting robot Moxi has spiked as hospital staffs have grown increasingly overworked and understaffed, accelerating trends that existed prior to COVID-19.
While last year’s $10 million cash infusion has no doubt helped Diligent grow, the company has faced the difficult task of accelerating production while dealing with the familiar challenges of moving to remote work.
Andrea Thomaz, the associate professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who co-founded Diligent in 2017 with Vivian Chu, joined us this week to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities the last year has held.
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How profound an impact is the pandemic having on both robotics generally and Diligent specifically?
It is really just a dramatic shift in labor markets across a lot of different industries. It seems to be related both to people kind of having a great resignation, where people are deciding that they want to do different things. And a lot of people shifting jobs. We’re seeing that all across tech work, a lot in our industry and healthcare. A lot of people are just deciding to do something else. There were already workforce challenges pre-pandemic, and now those are reaching crisis levels.
This is kind of a perfect storm, in a sense, because you have fewer people wanting to do the job, and more people needed to do the job all at the same time.
And that trend was starting before the pandemic. The pandemic just added fuel to the fire. But the trend kind of started with the Affordable Care Act. More people having access to healthcare means more people are going to hospitals and getting care. That together with an aging population, and you just have more care needing to happen with fewer and fewer people.
Are you able to quantify that demand, in terms of how many hospitals you were in initially, and how that demand has spiked subsequently?
We’re not really sharing that. I think towards the early half of next year, we’ll be sharing more specific announcements around scale numbers, but I can say that we’re, we’re doubling the number of robots that are deployed every quarter.
What is that process like in terms getting one of these robots up and running?
I think that’s what’s really interesting about hospital markets. It’s different than traditional warehouse or manufacturing automation. There’s people in the environment and they’re nurses and clinicians. The robot has to work within that environment and alongside the people. The first thing we do is workflow assessments. How does work currently happen in that environment?
How has the pandemic impacted your own growth?
Pre-pandemic, we were still proving out product market fit. We were keeping the R & D team pretty small, making small tweaks to the product, but really, it was all about getting it out in front of customers and showing that they were really seeing value. And Now it’s all about execution and delivery, how do we make it as fast as possible to implement and as robust as possible. On the hardware side, in particular, it’s around design for manufacturing and reliability. Now that we’ve had robots out in the field for over a year, you’re starting to see some of the pieces and parts that we could get more reliability around, so we’re getting to that fun longtail of robotics.
Are there any surprising features or demands that people had of the robots that are a result of the pandemic?
I think that across all of our customer sites, the one request that we get, from every single nurse is, “is that robot gonna be able to bring me coffee?” They want Moxi to go to the Starbucks in the lobby and bring coffee for everyone. They try to justify that as a time savings, because then I wouldn’t have to go and stand in line at Starbucks. It’s not out of the question. But we’re not actively piloting that one.
So, you’re not going to build an espresso machine into Moxi?
Not in the next year.
Do you anticipate seeking additional funding at some point in the near future?
We are making plans for growth capital. They’re still working it out. But with the huge uptick in demand from customers, I think we’re ready to sort of accelerate some of our team and get more robots out.
Are you focusing on the U.S. for the time being?
For the time being. We are starting to consider what an international strategy would look like. I wouldn’t expect that we’ll have any international deployments next year, but we’ve started to have a lot of interest. We’re deciding what the right distribution partners would look like. We get several inquiries a month from international clients. At this point, we’re not actively in any project with them.
So, more on funding rounds and coffee deliveries at a later time. There are, however, a couple of delivery stories worth noting this week. First off, Tortoise (which we’ve covered a bunch in the past), is getting a big boost for its team of remote-controlled delivery bots. A deal with Idaho-based King Retail Solutions will bring more than 500 of its robots to U.S. sidewalks for last-mile delivery.
“Everybody’s waking up to this new reality that same-day is the new normal, and it’s just not sustainable on every possible front to have that consumer expectation be met with people making $20 an hour doing those deliveries,” CEO Dmitry Shevelenko said of the deal. “The math just doesn’t work.”
Yesterday, Google’s Wing announced its own partnership. Teaming with Australian retail property group Vicinity Centres lets the drone-based delivery program expand its footprint. Following the recent announcement of its 100,000th delivery, the Wing team says it’s already launched 2,500 deliveries from the roof of Logan, Australia’s Grand Plaza shopping center over the past month.
Residents can get bubble tea, juice, sushi and now health and beauty products. Says Wing, “Because almost every business has a roof, our new rooftop delivery model opens up the possibility for more businesses to offer drone delivery services with little additional cost or added infrastructure.”
Speaking of juice (not a segue I get to use very frequently in this roundup), Bay Area-based smoothie robot maker Blendid this week announced that it will be powering Jamba’s second mall kiosk. The location opened this week at a mall in Downey, California, a city in LA County that’s also home to the oldest operating McDonald’s (thanks, Wikipedia).
Wave of the future or gimmick? Yes and yes.
“After a successful launch of our first Jamba by Blendid kiosk, we’re excited to open a second test kiosk at the Stonewood Center, bringing freshly blended smoothies to mall shoppers,” Jamba president Geoff Henry, said in a release. “Jamba by Blendid provides an opportunity for our local franchisees to make smoothies more accessible to Jamba fans, while leveraging the latest in technology to deliver contactless food.”
On the orchard side of the fruit business, The Robot Report this week notes that Wavemaker Labs has acquired the IP for Abundant Robotics, which shuffled off this mortal coil over the summer. Unfortunately, this likely doesn’t mean the return of Abundant’s apple-picking robots, but rather the integration of its technology into the robotic systems from Future Acres, a Wavemaker portfolio startup.
And finally, a quick bit of robotic search out of MIT that uses an RF antenna and camera mounted to an arm to find lost objects. Per the school:
Using machine learning, the robotic arm automatically zeroes-in on the object’s exact location, moves the items on top of it, grasps the object, and verifies that it picked up the right thing. The camera, antenna, robotic arm, and AI are fully integrated, so RFusion can work in any environment without requiring a special set up.