As the worm turns

Actuator: Geckos, worms, Minions and novel methods for picking strawberries

Here’s something for you to mull over this fine Thursday morning: Do agtech robotics need a reset? Granted, we’re dealing with a small sample size here, but a string of news items over the past year have left me wondering why the category is — thus far — failing to live up to some very strong potential.

Warehouse fulfillment and last-mile delivery have been the real breakout stars of the pandemic — and understandably so. But given chronic labor shortages and an aging population of farmers (the average age is ~58 years in the U.S. and about a decade older in Japan), this is a huge opportunity for growth.

There are a lot of variables, of course. The barrier for effective autonomy is certainly lower in a field than it is on a crowded city street. But there are other factors to deal with, in terms of things like computer vision and machine learning, from identifying weeds to learning to pick fragile crops like berries. There’s also the question of monetization and how eager farmers will be to adopt these new technologies.

This has been on my mind in the wake of Zoox’s acquisition of Strio.AI. I’m going to be very upfront here and admit that I wasn’t familiar with the latter prior to this week’s news. In my defense, the company was young, having formed in 2020. In spite — or, perhaps because — of being founded during a pandemic, it managed to roll out its first prototype device quickly, testing it at farms within six months.

Zoox in San Francisco

Image Credits: Zoox

But the acquisition effectively marks the end of Strio as a company. It was an aqui-hire, bringing over a number of employees (including the co-founder and CEO), who will be incorporated into the robotaxi team. They’ll stay put in Boston, however, as Zoox is opening an R&D space in that hub of robotics research. The startup’s strawberry picking ambitions, however, are effectively done.

This, of course, reflects the recent Traptic news. That startup is taking its strawberry-picking robots out of the fields, as it instead looks to integrate that technology into Bowery’s vertical farms. In that instance, at least, the new owner is directly incorporating the farming technology into (an albeit dramatically different) agtech setting.

Traptic 4

Image Credits: Traptic

Then there are companies like Blue River Technologies and Bear Flag Robotics, both of which were acquired by John Deere. That’s further cementing the long-time tractor maker’s place at the tip of the agtech spear. Between that and the fact that it’s been selling tools to farmers for nearly 200 years, John Deere’s going to to be a tough company to beat. So why not just join them.

I think that gets to the heart of the matter, really. Launching a startup is hard. That goes triple for a robotics company. In many cases, acquisition is a perfectly reasonable — or even favorable — outcome. Selfishly, it’s hard to see a promising young company take themselves off the market. But can you blame them? I certainly can’t. If Amazon or John Deere or whoever suddenly knocked on you door with a boatload of money and the opportunity to continue your work with a lot more resources, would you say no? Especially in the wake of what recently happened to a promising company like Abundant, which was the darling of agtech robotics not all that long ago.

Ford – Agility Robotics shoot in Albany, Oreggon on May 10, 2019. Image Credits: Courtesy of Ford/Photo Tim LaBarge

As I mentioned last week, I recently spoke with Agility Robotics’ co-founder and CTO, Jonathan Hurst, and Playground Global’s founding partner, Bruce Leak. It offered some insight into — among other things — how charmed Agility’s position feels, having caught the attention of a VC fund willing to invest the time and energy into letting Agility grow and find its market. That’s certainly not something anyone can assume going into this.

Says Leak:

We were surfing the internet like any good venture capital group, and we ran across the video that Agility released. We were super impressed. This product, at some level, was just an incredible pair of legs. But it could walk for hours and even run across uneven terrain in a very practical way. Seeing something like that, which we thought might not even be possible, we knew we had to meet the Agility team.

What’s the solution? Obviously getting more funds supercharged in the space and willing to give agtech robotics sufficient runway would be ideal. Some truly aggressive funding from the government would be a great way to own the space and take control over the U.S. food supply. Either way, I’d be looking at this space a lot more closely. That strawberry is ripe for the picking, should the right robotic arm come alone.

Tortoise mobile smart store selling Bake Sum goods

Image Credits: Tortoise

On the note of finding your market comes interesting news out of Tortoise, which is pivoting from the white-hot category of last-mile delivery to the red-hot world of autonomous retail. Here that basically means sticking a “mobile store” on the back of Tortoise’s little robots. Fun quote from co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko here about knowing when to pivot and not looking back:

You have to know what hyper-growth tastes like, and you have to have the humility to know what the fake version of it tastes like. It’s hard and it’s painful to make these pivots, and you look like an idiot when six months ago you were telling the world last-mile is the next great thing, and now you’re saying something else, but it’s better to suffer some of the indignation of that than to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

Nvidia, meanwhile, wants you to know it’s still invested in that last mile. The components giant just invested $10 million into Serve Robotics, an Uber spinout that makes robots that look like Minions (tell me I’m wrong).

Image Credits: Phantom Auto / Post Mates / Serve Robotics.

“We see ourselves as a company that’s leading with autonomy and scaling real autonomous robots out in the real world,” says Serve CEO Ali Kashani. “Nvidia is one of the most critical companies to the robotics space as a whole, and they’re also investing in the tools, so it just makes sense for us to work close together given this is a developing space.”

Image Credits: Gecko Robotics

A big $73 million raise for Gecko Robotics this week. Talk about places in desperate need of government funding. It’s hard to ignore the fact that a bridge collapsed in the startup’s hometown of Pittsburgh the same day the president arrived to talk infrastructure funding. Gecko’s own technology is specifically designed to monitor manufacturing structures for categories like oil and gas, power, manufacturing and defense.

GE’s Pipe-worm (Programmable Worm for Irregular Pipeline Exploration) robot also began life on the defense side. Specifically, the project was birthed out of DARPA’s Underminer program as a way to develop tunneling technology for the military. These days, it’s got a new job — and a set of cockroach-inspired whiskers, which offer tactile feedback to help it navigate around pipes and tunnels. The robot sports fluid-powered muscles that offer enough strength to unclog fat deposits — or fatbergs.

The robot is really leaning in to the “dirty” part of the three robotic Ds.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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