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Recycling robotics company AMP Robotics could raise up to $70M

AMP Robotics, the recycling robotics technology developer backed by investors including Sequoia Capital and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is close to closing on as much as $70 million in new financing, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the company’s plans.

The new financing speaks to AMP Robotics’ continued success in pilot projects and with new partnerships that are exponentially expanding the company’s deployments.

Earlier this month the company announced a new deal that represented its largest purchase order for its trash sorting and recycling robots.

That order, for 24 machine learning-enabled robotic recycling systems with the waste handling company Waste Connections, was a showcase for the efficacy of the company’s recycling technology.

That comes on the back of a pilot program earlier in the year with one Toronto apartment complex, where the complex’s tenants were able to opt into a program that would share recycling habits monitored by AMP Robotics with the building’s renters in an effort to improve their recycling behavior.

The potential benefits of AMP Robotic’s machine learning enabled robots are undeniable. The company’s technology can sort waste streams in ways that traditional systems never could and at a cost that’s far lower than most waste handling facilities.

As TechCrunch reported earlier the tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.

AMP’s robots already have been deployed in North America, Asia and Europe, with recent installations in Spain and across the U.S. in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

At the beginning of the year, AMP Robotics  worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that provided residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits. Sidewalk Labs is transporting the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash is sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics.

Once the waste is categorized, sorted and recorded, Sidewalk communicates with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.

It was only last November that the Denver-based AMP Robotics raised a $16 million round from Sequoia Capital and others to finance the early commercialization of its technology.

As TechCrunch reported at the time, recycling businesses used to be able to rely on China to buy up any waste stream (no matter the quality of the material). However, about two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries.

The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively. At the time, unemployment rates put the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where trash was sorted. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on those recycling and waste handling facilities, despite their identification as “essential workers”.

Given the economic reality, recyclers are turning to AMP’s technology — a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotic automation to improve efficiencies at their facilities.

And, the power of AMP’s technology to identify waste products in a stream has other benefits, according to chief executive Matanya Horowitz.

“We can identify… whether it’s a Coke or Pepsi can or a Starbucks cup,” Horowitz told TechCrunch last year. “So that people can help design their product for circularity… we’re building out our reporting capabilities and that, to them, is something that is of high interest.”

AMP Robotics declined to comment for this article.

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Relativity Space raises $500 million as its sets sights on the industrialization of Mars

3D-printed rocket startup Relativity Space has closed $500 million in Series D funding (making official the earlier reported raise), the company announced today. This funding was led by Tiger Global Management, and included participation by a host of new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company, Baillie Gifford, Iconiq Capital, General Catalist and more. This brings the company’s total raised so far to nearly $700 million, as the startup is poised to launch its first ever fully 3D-printed orbital rocket next year.

LA-based Relativity had a big 2020, completing work on a new 120,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach. Its rocket construction technology, which is grounded in its development and use of the largest metal 3D printers in existence, suffered relatively few setbacks due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and work stoppages since it involves relatively few actual people on the factory floor managing the 3D printing process, which is handled in large part by autonomous robotic systems and software developed by the company.

Relativity also locked in a first official contract from the U.S. government this year, to launch a new experimental cryogenic fluid management system on behalf of client Lockheed Martin, as part of NASA’s suite of Tipping Point contracts to fund the development of new technologies for space exploration. It also put into service its third-generation Stargate 3D metal printers – the largest on Earth, as mentioned.

The company’s ambitions are big, so this new large funding round should provide it with fuel to grow even more aggressively in 2021. It’s got new planned initiatives underway, both terrestrial and space-related, but CEO and founder Tim Ellis specifically referred to Mars and sustainable operations on the red planet as one possible application of Relativity’s tech down the road.

In prior conversations, Ellis has alluded to the potential for Relativity’s printers when applied to other large-scale metal manufacturing – noting that the cost curve as it stands makes most sense for rocketry, but could apply to other industries easily as the technology matures. Whether on Mars or on Earth, large-scale 3D printing definitely has a promising future, and it looks like Relativity is well-positioned to take advantage.

We’ll be talking to Ellis at our forthcoming TC Sessions: Space event, so we’ll ask him more about this round and his company’s aspirations live there, too.

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Sequoia-backed recycling robot maker AMP Robotics gets its largest purchase order

AMP Robotics, the manufacturer of robotic recycling systems, has received its largest purchase order from the publicly traded North American waste handling company, Waste Connections.

The order, for 24 machine learning enabled robotic recycling systems, will be used on container, fiber and residue lines across numerous materials recovery facilities, the company said.

The AMP technology can be used to recover plastics, cardboard, paper, cans, cartons and many other containers and packaging types reclaimed for raw material processing.

The tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells, and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.

So far, AMP’s robots have been deployed in North America, Asia, and Europe with recent installations in Spain, and across the US in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In January, before the pandemic began, AMP Robotics worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that would provide residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits.

Working with the building and a waste hauler, Sidewalk Labs  would transport the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash will be sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics. Once the waste is categorized, sorted, and recorded Sidewalk will communicate with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.

Sidewalk says that the tips will be communicated through email, an online portal, and signage throughout the building every two weeks over a three-month period.

For residents, it was an opportunity to have a better handle on what they can and can’t recycle and Sidewalk Labs is betting that the information will help residents improve their habits. And for folks who don’t want their trash to be monitored and sorted, they could opt out of the program.

Recyclers like Waste Connections should welcome the commercialization of robots tackling industry problems. Their once-stable business has been turned on its head by trade wars and low unemployment. About two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries. The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively.

At the same time, low unemployment rates are putting the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where humans are basically required to hand-sort garbage into recyclable materials and trash.

AMP Robotics is backed by Sequoia Capital,  BV, Closed Loop Partners, Congruent Ventures  and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, a spin-out from Alphabet that invests in technologies and new infrastructure projects.

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Autonomous delivery startup Nuro hits $5 billion valuation on fresh funding of $500 million

Nuro, the autonomous delivery startup founded by two former Google engineers, has raised $500 million, suggesting that investors still have an appetite for long-term pursuits such as robotics and automated vehicle technology. Nuro now has a post-money valuation of $5 billion.

The Series C round was led by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., with participation from new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company and Baillie Gifford. The round also includes existing investors such as SoftBank Vision Fund 1 and Greylock.

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by former Google engineers Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu. While the startup was initially bootstrapped by Ferguson and Zhu, it has never struggled to attract investors. Nuro completed its first Series A funding round in China in 2016, a deal that gave NetEase founder Ding Lei (aka William Ding) a seat on Nuro’s board. A second, U.S.-based round in June 2017 raised Nuro’s total Series A funding to $92 million. But it was the monster $940 million investment made by the SoftBank Vision Fund in February 2019 that catapulted Nuro ahead of numerous other startups attempting to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology. Nuro had a $2.7 billion valuation following the Softbank investment, meaning its value doubled in about 18 months. That money has helped it grow to more than 650 employees.

Unlike many other startups in the AV industry, Nuro has focused its effort designing a low-speed electric self-driving vehicle that transports packages, not people. Some of Nuro’s first tests and pilots were with Toyota Prius vehicles equipped with its self-driving system. Nuro partnered in 2018 with with Kroger to pilot a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, which initially used Toyota Prius vehicles, transitioned to its R1 delivery bot. Nuro has also partnered with companies like CVS, Domino’s and Walmart.

The company has since developed a second generation vehicle, known as the R2. This delivery bot, which is designed for local delivery service for restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, received an exemption from the federal government earlier this year that allows it to operate as a driverless vehicle.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented shift in consumer demand for safe and affordable local delivery services,” said Zhu, CEO and co-founder of Nuro said in a statement. “This funding, which brings us together with many of the world’s top investors, positions Nuro confidently toward a future where our world-class technology is adopted into people’s everyday lives.”

The company, which is testing and operating R2 on public roads in Arizona, California and Texas, told TechCrunch that the new funding will allow it to “confidently grow for years to come, with multi-year runway to build in multiple cities and scale across multiple markets.” Nuro’s near-term focus is on scaling its service in Houston and implementing R2 into commercial service.

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Walmart reportedly ends contract with inventory robotics startup Bossa Nova

Robotics and automation startups have seen a strong uptick in interest over the course of the pandemic. And it’s easy to see which companies have a newfound interest in automating their workforce amid a seemingly endless virus-driven shutdown. But Walmart, which has long promised to take an increasing focus on such technology, has reportedly pulled the plug on one of its highest-profile partnerships.

The mega-retailer has ended a contract with Bossa Nova Robotics, according to new reporting from The Wall Street Journal. Walmart had announced in January that it would bring the Bay Area-based startup’s inventory-scanning robots to an additional 650 locations, bringing the total up to 1,000. The move has resulted in layoffs of around 50% at the Carnegie Mellon spin-off, per the WSJ report. It’s a huge hit at a time when such technologies should be thriving.

Bossa Nova co-founder Sarjoun Skaff didn’t confirm nor deny the WSJ report, instead issuing a no comment. He did, however, weigh in on the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on the company, seeming to confirm that some layoffs had indeed occurred.

“I cannot comment on Walmart, however, the pandemic has forced us to streamline our operations and focus on our core technologies,” Skaff said. “We have made stunning advances in AI and robotics. Our retail AI is the industry’s best and works as well on robots as with fixed cameras, and our hardware, autonomy and operations excelled in more than 500 of the world’s most challenging stores. With the board’s full support, we continue deploying this technology with our partners in retail and in other fields.”

The tumult at Bossa Nova has stretched beyond layoffs. Skaff, who was CTO, took over the CEO spot in October when Stuart Pann left the position after less than nine months. Bossa Nova’s deal with Walmart was a major break for the startup, which began life in 2005 as a robotic toymaker before pivoting into something more serious. The startup’s relationship with Walmart dates back to 2017, when the chain ordered 50 robots.  Walmart’s massive order earlier was a major endorsement of Bossa Nova’s technology.

Such a change of heart would no doubt have a profound effect on the company.

Walmart apparently just wasn’t getting enough out of the deal. Bossa Nova’s robots had made their way into around 500 stores by the time the deal ended — around half of the initial proposed number. As COVID-19 has pushed more orders online, Walmart began exploring ways to use human workers to perform inventory while grabbing product for online fulfillment. Walmart’s operations, as well as those at other major retailers, will continue to evolve as brick-and-mortar locations reopen and customers shows signs of interest to return to the in-person shopping experience. The volatility of the pandemic still doesn’t lessen the sting or impact that Walmart’s abrupt reversal will have on Bossa Nova and its hopes for a rebound.

Meanwhile, Walmart’s robotic experiments aren’t over. The company’s Sam’s Club subsidiary recently announced it would bring Tennant’s floor scrubbing robots to all of its 599 stores. Interestingly, the company is also exploring ways for these machines to double up and perform in-store inventory checks; it’s not clear if these will be used only in Sam’s Club locations or extend to Walmart stores as well.

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Robust.AI raises a $15M Series A to improve problem solving for collaborative robots

Robust.AI today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A, led by Jazz Venture Partners. Existing partners Playground Global, Liquid2, Fontinalis, Jaan Tallinn and Mark Leslie also participated in the round, which brings the Bay Area-based robotics AI startup’s funding up to $22.5 million.

Founded mid-2019, the company counts Rodney Brooks among its C-level executives. The iRobot co-founder serves as the startup’s CTO, following the unexpected closure of the promising (but financially untenable) Rethink, which gave the world the Baxter and Sawyer robots. (Fellow iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner also notably landed at a new venture in recent months). CEO Gary Marcus, meanwhile, is also the co-founder of Geometric Intelligence, which was acquired by Uber, back in 2016.

At the core of Robust.AI are plans to build “the world’s first industrial-grade cognitive engine for robots,” essentially providing collaborative robots sufficient problem-solving capacity to effectively work alongside humans.

The company is still quite new, but many robotics and automation investments have seemingly been fast-tracked by a pandemic that has hamstrung much of the human workforce. Robust’s stated mission is to overhaul the software stack that runs many of these machines, in order to to make them function better in often complex environments.

“Finding market fit is as important in robots and AI systems as any other product,” Brooks said in a statement. “We are building something we believe most robotics companies will find irresistible, taking solutions from single-purpose tools that today function in defined environments, to highly useful systems that can work within our world and all its intricacies.”

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Boston Dynamics’ Spot is getting an arm and self-charging dock next year

Boston Dynamics’ new CEO Rob Playter told TechCrunch that the company has now sold around 260 of its sophisticated Spot robot as of his appearance at Disrupt last month. While the company faced some questions about the commercial appeal of the $75,000 robot, it’s clear that a number of verticals are interested in finding ways to deploy the tech.

Among Spot’s many appeals is its positioning as a kind of platform for developers and third-parties who can build their own accessories for a range of different applications, from construction to telemedicine. But Boston Dynamics is also actively developing its own accessories to help diversify Spot’s applications.

The company recently announced that it would be offering an arm add-on capable of performing a wide variety of tasks, including opening doors and picking up objects. The addition is a no-brainer, given that the arm was featured in the first Spot/Spot Mini videos from years back. In fact, I was honestly a little disappointed when the accessory was left out of the initial launch of the company’s first commercial product.

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

The arm is set to arrive at some point early next near. It has six degrees of freedom and is designed to move along with the robot. “Like the base robot,” the company writes, “there’s much more to the arm than just hardware. It will ship with an intuitive UI, and be equipped to operate through both telemanipulation and supervised autonomous behaviors via the tablet.”

The arm/gripper will also be accessible to developers via an API. Applications like opening doors, and grasping and dragging objects, will be automated and offered as beta features when the arm ships.

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics is also announcing an Enterprise-focused version of the robot that features a self-charging dock. Like a big, sophisticated Roomba, Spot will be able to return unguided to the dock for a recharge. The setup is designed for environments like oil rigs and radiation danger zones where the robot can ideally operate without humans present.

That’s also set to arrive early next year. Pricing for the above is still TBD.

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Alphabet’s latest moonshot is a field-roving, plant-inspecting robo-buggy

Alphabet (you know… Google) has taken the wraps off the latest “moonshot” from its X labs: A robotic buggy that cruises over crops, inspecting each plant individually and, perhaps, generating the kind of “big data” that agriculture needs to keep up with the demands of a hungry world.

Mineral is the name of the project, and there’s no hidden meaning there. The team just thinks minerals are really important to agriculture.

Announced with little fanfare in a blog post and site, Mineral is still very much in the experimental phase. It was born when the team saw that efforts to digitize agriculture had not found as much success as expected at a time when sustainable food production is growing in importance every year.

“These new streams of data are either overwhelming or don’t measure up to the complexity of agriculture, so they defer back to things like tradition, instinct or habit,” writes Mineral head Elliott Grant. What’s needed is something both more comprehensive and more accessible.

Much as Google originally began with the idea of indexing the entire web and organizing that information, Grant and the team imagined what might be possible if every plant in a field were to be measured and adjusted for individually.

Image Credits: Mineral

The way to do this, they decided, was the “Plant buggy,” a machine that can intelligently and indefatigably navigate fields and do those tedious and repetitive inspections without pause. With reliable data at a plant-to-plant scale, growers can initiate solutions at that scale as well — a dollop of fertilizer here, a spritz of a very specific insecticide there.

They’re not the first to think so. FarmWise raised quite a bit of money last year to expand from autonomous weed-pulling to a full-featured plant intelligence platform.

As with previous X projects at the outset, there’s a lot of talk about what could happen in the future, and how they got where they are, but rather little when it comes to “our robo-buggy lowered waste on a hundred acres of soy by 10 percent” and such like concrete information. No doubt we’ll hear more as the project digs in.

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Enhanced computer vision, sensors raise manufacturing stakes for robots as a service

RaaS is defining the second generation of robots that work alongside humans

For more than two decades, robotics market commentaries have predicted a shift, particularly in manufacturing, from traditional industrial manipulators to a new generation of mobile, sensing robots, called “cobots.” Cobots are agile assistants that use internal sensors and AI processing to operate tools or manipulate components in a shared workspace, while maintaining safety.

It hasn’t happened. Companies have successfully deployed cobots, but the rate of adoption is lagging behind expectations.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), cobots sold in 2019 made up just 3% of the total industrial robots installed. A report published by Statista projects that in 2022, cobots’ market share will advance to 8.5%. This is a fraction of a February 2018 study cited by the Robotic Industries Association that forecasted by 2025, 34% of the new robots being sold in the U.S. will be cobots.

To see a cobot in action, here’s the Kuka LBR iiwa. To ensure safe operation, cobots come with built-in constraints, like limited strength and speed. Those limitations have also limited their adoption.

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As cobots’ market share languishes, standard industrial robots are being retrofitted with computer vision technology, allowing for collaborative work combining the speed and strength of industrial robots with the problem-solving skills and finesse of humans.

This article will document the declining interest in cobots, the reasons for it and the technology that is replacing it. We report on two firms developing computer vision technology for standard robots and describe how developments in 3D vision and so-called “robots as a service” (yes, RaaS) are defining this faster-growing second generation of robots that can work alongside humans.

What are robotics sensing platforms?

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