Such great heights

Actuator: Scanning fields, building walls and cleaning windows

The old Gmail inbox is overflowing with agtech pitches, and frankly I only have myself to blame after bringing it up the last two newsletters (damn, just did it again, didn’t?). As for where this whole thing started? I blame the fact that spring officially sprung at precisely 11:33 AM ET in my home hemisphere. Flowers are blooming, birds and singing and we’re all thinking about how we might employ robots to deal with it all.

There’s also the (possibly related fact) that the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit kicked off in San Francisco this week, which is at least partially to blame for the pitches filling the air like so many pollen grains. Not that I’m annoyed or anything (if I sound it, that’s the literal pollen speaking, which now comprises roughly half my brain). In fact, if anything, it’s offered some interesting insight into the big trends in the category.

I had said early on that agtech robotics thus far haven’t seen the adoption rate many were anticipating, and that still stands. But it’s not for lack of trying. The biggest thing in the category is currently surveying — specifically monitoring crops for potential issues. I frequently cite the statistic that the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 57.5 years, and about a decade older in Japan. Here in the States, the age has been increasing for around four decades.

I mention that because farming can be extremely difficult work, and at an age when many are (at least theoretically) considering what retirement looks like, they’re out there in the fields at sunrise. Traditional surveying monopolizes a lot of tedious hours during the day. And if not done right, it’s hard to catch problem areas before they become actual problems.

Image Credits: Growmark/Solinftec

Four of the key methods I’ve been seeing pop up are satellite imagery, IoT devices, drone surveillance and robotics, like this unnamed device from Growmark and Solinftec. Surveying is going to be an important first step in introducing robots into farms, though a far more compelling model combines that functionality with other tasks, whether it’s picking fruit, weeding or plowing. Given that many of these devices are effectively rented from companies, I’m guessing farmers will want the most bang for their buck.

All right, enough farm talk this week. Let’s discuss the future of robotic ubiquity for a minute. Toward the end of last year, I spoke with CMU’s new robotics director about his new role. He capped the interview off by telling me, “If you go to a factory floor or a few other places, you can see a robot. Maybe you have a robot vacuum, but I want it to be at a point where you look out your window and see a robot.”

Let’s be super literal here for a minute and discuss Skyline Robotics (not to be confused with the strange regional chili of the same name). As I mentioned in a recent write-up, I’d put window washing high on my list of jobs to automate. Until I looked into it this week, I assumed one could make some great scratch, given the relative hazards of such an occupation, but the figures I’ve seen don’t really reflect that.

Statistically it might not be the most dangerous job in the world, but it’s probably among the most harrowing, just dangling on a platform in the sky, hundreds of feet above street level. Skyline got some ink late last year, showing off its Ozmo system, which effectively features two Kuka robotic arms on a suspended platform. Yesterday, it announced $6.5 million in funding, bringing its total raise up to $9 million.

“This successful funding round and first Ozmo deployment shows that the demand for our product and services are not just tangible and felt by investors, but that there’s a major business opportunity ahead of Skyline,” says CEO Michael Brown. “The conviction of our team is being matched by the investment community.”

Image Credits: OTTO

Speaking of hazardous jobs, as I mentioned last week, forklifts can be deceptively dangerous. Naturally, more firms are looking to automate the process, including Ontario-based OTTO. The Canadian company this week announced the availability of its new autonomous pallet mover, the OTTO Lifter.

Andrew Job, Founder & CEO of Plotlogic. Photo by Sarah Keayes/The Photo Pitch

Meanwhile, Devin had the story about Plotlogic’s $18 million raise. The Brisbane startup uses hyperspectral imagery to find difficult to detect elements in the soil.

Says CEO Andrew Job:

We see three types of benefits: financial, environmental sustainability and safety. The operation can process more ore and less waste, making it more profitable. They can be more precise, leaving more rocks in situ and not expending fuel and greenhouse gases moving waste. And finally, it reduces human exposure hours in the mine.

Image Credits: Nvidia

This week at GTC, Nvidia continued its push into the world of robot development with the launch of the Jetson AGX Orin. The $2,000 developer kit offers a pretty massive computing increase over its predecessor. Production units, meanwhile, are arriving in Q4.

Automation is poised to revolutionize the $10 trillion construction industry over the next few years, so Rugged Robotics is pushing to become more automated. The company announced that it’s pushing to turn its field printers to become fully self-operating for potential 24/7 usage. The systems print building layouts on the floor to give workers a precise idea of where to build.

This week, the company raised $9.4 million, following up on a $2.5 million round back in 2019. “We set out to modernize the construction industry, and to build practical solutions that solve the pain points contractors struggle with every day,” says CEO Derrick Morse. “We believe that layout is the ideal starting point. Layout is the beachhead for construction automation. It sits at the intersection of the digital and physical world, solves a huge problem and unlocks the ability to deploy robotics onto job sites in a very meaningful way.”

Oh, and hey, before I leave you for the week, happy 10th birthday to Open Robotics. I’m still unsure of what to get the Robot Operating System maintainer who has everything, so a little column space will have to do.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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