The global robotic workforce is on the move.
No longer confined to their fixed positions on assembly lines and in warehouses, autonomous robots are increasingly autonomous, moving up and down the supply chain. Along the way, they earn job titles from boy to pack mule.
Sales of mobile robots have long lagged those of industrial robots, but that is set to change for the first time this year, according to intelligence firm ABI Research. The overall robotics industry grew 28% year-over-year in 2021 to set a record of nearly 40,000 units sold, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.
Venture capital funding has moved at the same pace, with robotics companies raising $8.2 billion across 360 deals in 2021, more than double the total value from the previous year, according to data from PitchBook. For investors, more independent robots have opened up a range of new vertical applications, from inspecting oil rigs to serving food.
“Across industries, blue-collar and white-collar, robots are infiltrating,” said David Mandel, managing partner at Emerging Ventures, whose robotics portfolio includes vision company Apera and crop digitization startup Bloomfield. Robotics.
Their newfound mobility and well-rounded skills are due to a confluence of technological improvements. The latest vision systems have facilitated navigation in a variable environment. The improved chips can run AI algorithms at the edge to make decisions without communicating with the cloud. Lightweight, high-energy-density batteries allow robots to operate for much of the day.
Armed with these capabilities, robots can better handle the randomness of the real world.
“As technologies mature, they generalize better,” said Jim Adler, founding managing director of Toyota Ventures. “You don’t want them to fit like a glove. You want them to fit like a mitten.”
Macroeconomic boosts are also at work. Rising online sales have forced retailers and shippers to be more efficient, leading to more investment in automation and experimentation with micro-fulfillment and ultra-fast delivery networks. The disruption of supply chains has prompted executives to put more emphasis on continuity – robots work eight days a week. And increasingly, robots are gaining traction in industries hard hit by labor shortages.
In an effort to gain traction on leaders like Amazon, retailers of all stripes are turning to robotics startups to help them automate their warehouses. European startup Exotec raised $335 million at a $2 billion valuation in a January seed round led by Goldman Sachs. The company’s robotic system, used by retailers like Gap and Uniqlo, is designed to fetch goods from ultra-dense warehouses that span 36 vertical feet.
Warehouses have been a natural target for automation in the face of pressures caused by the growth of e-commerce. Other parts of the supply chain present less controlled environments, but the latest robotic offerings are up to the task.
Fabric raised $200 million in October, one of the largest in the industry, to build its automated system for micro-distribution centers. The idea is to take the systems that have transformed distribution centers and scale them down for use in urban warehouses.
Robotic forklift startups have also become a hot commodity among venture capitalists. In January, Vecna Robotics raised $65 million and Phantom Auto raised $42 million. Boston Dynamics, whose robotic dog Spot has long made headlines, recently began selling a robot to unload trucks following the company’s $1.1 billion acquisition by Hyundai last year.
These efforts are helping to make automated last-mile delivery a reality alongside door-to-door autonomous vehicles like those made by Nuro.
Bots are also closing in on end users by taking on service jobs.
White Castle is testing hamburger flipping robots made by Miso Robotics, which is targeting $40 million in crowdfunding. SoftBank-backed Keenon Robotics snagged $200 million last year for its hotel and restaurant delivery robots. And Bear Robotics’ waiter, named Servi, got his start at restaurants such as Denny’s and Chili’s.
From the warehouse to the barnyard
The forces that pushed robots up the supply chain also brought them closer to producers. Indoor farming startup Plenty recently raised $400 million alongside a shift in strategy: it now sells indoor farms directly to customers like grocery store and restaurant chains. The argument is better control of the product supply chain, as well as predictable costs and returns.
At Plenty Farms, tower gardens of salad greens and other produce are grown and harvested using robotic arms that pick and place the towers for harvesting by human hands. Field farming lacks this controlled environment.
“We have some really tough problems to solve in the field,” said Plenty co-founder and chief scientific officer Nate Storey. “There is no way that Plenty can meet all global food demands.”
To meet this challenge, fleets of autonomous tractors are deployed in the field. Last year, Monarch Tractor raised $61 million and Bear Flag Robotics was acquired by John Deere for $250 million. Both systems allow a single worker to manage multiple electric tractors that can work day and night.
Even the humble wheelbarrow gets a makeover. Burro, who created a robot that transports fruit picked by field workers, raised a $10.9 million Series A round in September, co-led by S2G Ventures and Toyota Ventures.
Although these robotic applications have been considered for a long time, many have not yet been proven in practice. It remains to be seen how customers will react to robots in restaurants, or whether the success of the warehouse can translate into last-mile delivery apps.
Under the right conditions, proponents say these robots can do the double duty of saving money for businesses while improving working conditions for their human colleagues.
As Adler noted, “These autonomous vehicles are just going to amplify the people and the work that we do.”
Featured image by Drew Sanders and Julia Midkiff/PitchBook News