Robotics-as-a-service is on the way and inVia Robotics is leading the charge

The team at inVia Robotics didn’t start out looking to build a business that would create a new kind of model for selling robotics to the masses, but that may be exactly what they’ve done.

After their graduation from the University of Southern California’s robotics program, Lior Alazary, Dan Parks, and Randolph Voorhies, were casting around for ideas that could get traction quickly.

“Our goal was to get something up and running that could make economic sense immediately,’ Voorhies, the company’s chief technology officer, said in an interview.

The key was to learn from the lessons of what the team had seen as the missteps of past robotics manufacturers.

Despite the early success of iRobot, consumer facing or collaborative robots that could operate alongside people had yet to gain traction in wider markets.

Willow Garage, the legendary company formed by some of the top names in the robotics industry had shuttered just as Voorhies and his compatriots were graduating, and Boston Dynamics, another of the biggest names in robotics research, was bought by Google around the same time — capping an six-month buying spree that saw the search giant acquire eight robotics companies.

In the midst of all this we were looking around and we said, ‘God there were a lot of failed robotics companies!’ and we asked ourselves why did that happen?” Voorhies recalled. “A lot of the hardware companies that we’d seen, their plan was: step one build a really cool robot and step three: an app ecosystem will evolve and people will write apps and the robot will sell like crazy. And nobody had realized how to do step 2, which was commercialize the robot.”

So the three co-founders looked for ideas they could take to market quickly.

The thought was building a robot that could help with mobility and reaching for objects. “We built a six-degree-of-freedom arm with a mobile base,” Voorhies said.

However, the arm was tricky to build, components were expensive and there were too many variables in the environment for things to go wrong with the robot’s operations. Ultimately the team at inVia realized that the big successes in robotics were happening in controlled environments. 

“We very quickly realized that the environment is too unpredictable and there were too many different kinds of things that we needed to do,” he said. 

Parks then put together a white paper analyzing the different controlled environments where collaborative robots could be most easily deployed. The warehouse was the obvious choice.

Back in March of 2012 Amazon had come to the same conclusion and acquired Kiva Systems in a $775 million deal that brought Kiva’s army of robots to Amazon warehouses and distribution centers around the world.

“Dan put a white paper together for Lior and I,” Voorhies said, “and the thing really stuck out was eCommerce logistics. Floors tend to be concrete slabs; they’re very flat with very little grade, and in general people are picking things off a shelf and putting them somewhere else.”

With the idea in place, the team, which included technologists Voorhies and Parks, and Lazary, a serial entrepreneur who had already exited from two businesses, just needed to get a working prototype together.

Most warehouses and shipping facilities that weren’t Amazon were using automated storage and retrieval systems, Voorhies said. These big, automated systems that looked and worked like massive vending machines. But those systems, he said, involved a lot of sunk costs, and weren’t flexible or adaptable.

And those old systems weren’t built for random access patterns and multi-use orders which comprise most of the shipping and packing that are done as eCommerce takes off.

With those sunk costs though, warehouses are reluctant to change the model. The innovation that Voorhies and his team came up with, was that the logistics providers wouldn’t have to.

“We didn’t like the upfront investment, not just to install one but just to start a company to build those things,” said Voorhies. “We wanted something we could bootstrap ourselves and grow very organically and just see wins very very quickly. So we looked at those ASRS systems and said why don’t we build mobile robots to do this.”

In the beginning, the team at inVia played with different ways to build the robot.l first there was a robot that could carry several different objects and another that would be responsible for picking.

The form factor that the company eventually decided on was a movable puck shaped base with a scissor lift that can move a platform up and down. Attached to the back of the platform is a robotic arm that can extend forward and backward and has a suction pump attached to its end. The suction pump drags boxes onto a platform that are then taken to a pick and pack employee.

We were originally going to grab individual product.s. Once we started talking to real warehouses more and more we realized that everyone stores everything in these boxes anyway,” said Voorhies. “And we said why don’t we make our lives way easier, why don’t we just grab those totes?” 

Since bootstrapping that initial robot, inVia has gone on to raise $29 million in financing to support its vision. Most recently with a $20 million round which closed in July.

“E-commerce industry growth is driving the need for more warehouse automation to fulfill demand, and AI-driven robots can deliver that automation with the flexibility to scale across varied workflows. Our investment in inVia Robotics reflects our conviction in AI as a key enabler for the supply chain industry,” said Daniel Gwak, Co-Head, AI Investments at Point72 Ventures, the early stage investment firm formed by the famed hedge fund manager, Steven Cohen.

Given the pressures on shipping and logistics companies, it’s no surprise that the robotics and automation are becoming critically important strategic investments, or that venture capital is flooding int the market. In the past two months alone, robotics companies targeting warehouse and retail automation have raised nearly $70 million in new financing. They include the recent raised $17.7 million for the French startup Exotec Solutions and Bossa Nova’s $29 million round for its grocery store robots.

Then there are warehouse-focused robotics companies like Fetch Robotics, which traces its lineage back to Willow Garage and Locus Robotics, which is linked to the logistics services company Quiet Logistics.

“Funding in robotics has been incredible over the past several years, and for good reason,” said John Santagate, Research Director for Commercial Service Robotics at Research and Analysis Firm IDC, in a statement. “The growth in funding is a function of a market that has become accepting of the technology, a technology area that has matured to meet market demands, and vision of the future that must include flexible automation technology. Products must move faster and more efficiently through the warehouse today to keep up with consumer demand and autonomous mobile robots offer a cost-effective way to deploy automation to enable speed, efficiency, and flexibility.”

The team at inVia realized it wasn’t enough to sell the robots. To give warehouses a full sense of the potential cost savings they could have with inVia’s robots, they’d need to take a page from the software playbook. Rather than selling the equipment, they’d sell the work the robots were doing as a service.

“Customers will ask us how much the robots cost and that’s sort of irrelevant,” says Voorhies. “We don’t want customers to think about those things at all.”

Contracts between inVia and logistics companies are based on the unit of work done, Voorhies said. “We charge on the order line,” says Voorhies. “An order line is a single [stock keeping unit] that somebody would order regardless of quantity… We’re essentially charging them every time a robot has to bring a tote and present it in front of a person. The faster we’re able to do that and the less robots we can use to present an item the better our margins are.”

It may not sound like a huge change, but those kinds of efficiencies matter in warehouses, Voorhies said. “If you’re a person pushing a cart in a warehouse that cart can have 35 pallets on it. With us, that person is standing still, and they’re really not limited to a single cart. They are able to fill 70 orders at the same time rather than 55,” he said.

At Rakuten logistics, the deployment of inVia’s robots are already yielding returns, according to Michael Manzione, the chief executive officer of Rakuten Super Logistics.

“Really [robotics] being used in a fulfillment center is pretty new,” said Manzione in an interview. “We started looking at the product in late February and went live in late March.”

For Manzione, the big selling point was scaling the robots quickly, with no upfront cost. “The bottom line is ging to be effective when we see planning around the holiday season,” said Manzione. “We’re not planning on bringing in additional people, versus last year when we doubled our labor.”

As Voorhies notes, training a team to work effectively in a warehouse environment isn’t easy.

The big problem is that it’s really hard to hire extra people to do this. In a warehouse there’s a dedicated core team that really kicks ass and they’re really happy with those pickers and they will be happy with what they get from whatever those people can sweat out in a shift,” Voorhies said. “Once you need to push your throughput beyond what your core team can do it’s hard to find people who can do that job well.” 

Here are all the robots we saw at TC Sessions: Robotics

Robots are coming. Are they overlords or friendly companions designed to help us perform the mundane tasks of our respective days? Perhaps it’s both. Whatever the purpose, they’re no longer part of some vague future we can’t quite fathom. They’re here now, and we got to meet a few of them at TC Sessions: Robotics at UC Berkeley.

Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert announced onstage that the company’s 66-pound SpotMini robot will be available for purchase by the normals in 2019. Yes, one day you, too, will be able to have a dog robot perform services for you at the office or home.

 

Mayfield Robotics

This cute little robot from Mayfield Robotics can blink, play music, turn its head and recharge itself. It can also just stay put to take pictures of you and live-stream your daily life. Yep. It watches you. Its name is Kuri and it can be your little buddy to always remind you that you never have to be alone.

Agility Robotics

Agility Robotics’ bipedal humanoid robot was designed with bird legs in mind. But it wasn’t yet designed with arms. The company’s CTO Jonathan Hurst says those are to come. It’ll cost you $35,000 when it’s in full production mode. Custom deliveries started in August 2017 to a select few universities — University of Michigan, Harvard and Caltech, and Berkeley just bought its own.

Although we didn’t see an example of this application, Cassie can apparently hold the body weight of a reasonably sized human. No thanks. Below you can see Cassie make an appearance with Andy Rubin .

RoMeLa

Dennis Hong, professor and founding director of RoMeLa (Robotics & Mechanisms Library) of the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department at UCLA, presented the humanoid robots he and his team developed in their lab. They set out to solve a common problem robots have: walking.

Humans are bipedal, so why is it so hard to replicate that in a robot, Hong asks. One of the reasons he said is because the distance between the left and right legs creates a twisting movement that renders forward and backward movement difficult. The resolution is to have them walk sideways. No twisting. So the team developed NABi (non-anthropomorphic biped), a bipedal locomotion robot with no “feet” or “shins.”

To extend the admittedly limited functionality of NABi, the team then created ALPHRED (Autonomous Legged Personal Helper Robot with Enhanced Dynamics). ALPHRED’s limbs, as the team calls them (“not legs, not arms”), form to create multimodal locomotion, because of its multiple types of formations. Depending on the type of movement required of the robot, the limbs change configurations to that of a dog or a horse, or to more of a humanoid, bipedal type.

SuitX

SuitX develops robotic modules that assist humans in performing everyday actions, such as walking, lifting, bending over and squatting. While you won’t suddenly possess the strength and agility of a Marvel superhero, wearing these modules can help you lift things that are ever-so-slightly heavier than you might be used to. The BackX, LegX and ShoulderX serve to minimize the stress we humans tend to place on our joints.

But infinitely more impressive during the conversation with company co-founder Homayoon Kazerooni was the application the audience saw of the company’s exoskeleton. Arash Bayatmakou fell from a balcony in 2012 which resulted in paralysis. He was told he would never walk again. Five years later, Arash connected with SuitX, and he has been working with a physical therapist to use the device to perform four functions: stand, sit and walk forward and backward. You can follow his recovery here.

Boston Dynamics will start selling its dog-like SpotMini robot in 2019

After 26 years, Boston Dynamics is finally getting ready to start selling some robots. Founder Marc Raibert says that the company’s dog-like SpotMini robot is in pre-production and preparing for commercial availability in 2019. The announcement came onstage at TechCrunch’s TC Sessions: Robotics event today at UC Berkeley.

“The SpotMini robot is one that was motivated by thinking about what could go in an office — in a space more accessible for business applications — and then, the home eventually,” Raibert said onstage.

Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini was introduced late last year and took the design of the company’s “bigger brother” quadruped Spot. While the company has often showcased advanced demos of its emerging projects, SpotMini has seemed uniquely productized from the start.

On its website, Boston Dynamics highlights that SpotMini is the “quietest robot [they] have built.” The device weighs around 66 pounds and can operate for about 90 minutes on a charge.

The company says it has plans with contract manufacturers to build the first 100 SpotMinis later this year for commercial purposes, with them starting to scale production with the goal of selling SpotMini in 2019. They’re not ready to talk about a price tag yet, but they detailed that the latest SpotMini prototype cost 10 times less to build than the iteration before it.

Just yesterday, Boston Dynamics posted a video of SpotMini in autonomous mode navigating with the curiosity of a flesh-and-blood animal.

The company, perhaps best known for gravely frightening conspiracy theorists and AI doomsdayers with advanced robotics demos, has had quite the interesting history.

It was founded in 1992 after being spun out of MIT. After a stint inside Alphabet Corp., the company was purchased by SoftBank last year. SoftBank has staked significant investments in the robotics space through its Vision Fund, and, in 2015, the company began selling Pepper, a humanoid robot far less sophisticated than what Boston Dynamics has been working on.

You can watch the entire presentation below, which includes a demonstration of the latest iteration of the SpotMini.

Five reasons to attend TC Robotics this Friday at UC Berkeley

This Friday, May 11, TechCrunch launches the West Coast debut of TC Sessions: Robotics at UC Berkeley. There are still a few tickets left, including $45 student tickets, that will get you access to the conference, workshops and networking reception. With robots as far as the eye can see and top robotics experts abounding, this is one event you won’t want to miss.

Still not convinced? Here are five reasons why you need to be there:

  1. Hear from the best minds in robotics 
    Where else can you catch industry leaders like Marc Raibert (Boston Dynamics), Andy Rubin (Playground Ventures), Melonee Wise (Fetch Robotics), Ayanna Howard (Zyrobotics), Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley) and many more, all in one place? We’re honored that these leaders will be attending and speaking at the event. Check out more speaker spots here.

  1. Get up close and personal with groundbreaking robots
    Meet lots of robots and their creators up close, including UC Berkeley’s industrial gripper Dex-Net System, SuitX’s exoskeletons, Agility Robotics’ bipedal Cassie, Boston Dynamics’ new SpotMini and UCLA’s sideways-walking NABi robot.

3. Discover the robot categories taking over the startup world
The majority of the top founders and investors in robotics will be onstage and around during breaks to network with and pick their brains. The agenda is impressive and full of top founders, engineers and educators. See the full agenda here.


4. Meet up-and-coming early-stage companies
There will be 11 early-stage robotics-related companies showcasing their startups in the Zellerbach Lobby. These companies are just ripe for investment and in a variety of verticals:

BEAR Robotics
DeepMotion
Exyn Technologies
Kadho
MultiplyLabs
Photoneo
Robotical
SAKE Robotics
Taechyon
TRA Robotics
VTRUS


 

5. Drill deeper at the workshops
Discover how to turn your ideas into a venture-backable business at the “Starting Up” workshop. Hear Skydio co-founder Adam Bry describe how his team prototyped their way to a stunning commercial launch for a drone that follows you anywhere. Discover everything you need to know about DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge with Dr. Tim Chung. Attendees will get the chance to ask questions and go deeper into these topics. More details about workshops here.

Join us this Friday, May 11; get your tickets now before we hit Zellerbach Hall’s capacity limit!

Students, don’t forget, you can get your tickets at a significant discount of $45 right here.

Boston Dynamics’ newest robot learns to open doors

 We knew this day would come sooner or later. Like the cloned velociraptors before it, Boston Dynamics’ newly redesigned Spot Mini has figured out how to open doors — with either its arm or face, depending on how you look at it. The team behind the Big Dog proves that it’s still the master of viral robotic marketing, even after switching teams from Google to Softbank.… Read More