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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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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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SpaceX launches 60 more satellites during 15th Starlink mission

SpaceX has launched another batch of 60 Starlink satellites, the primary ingredient for its forthcoming global broadband internet service. The launch took place at 11:31 AM EDT, with a liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This is the fifteenth Starlink launch thus far, and SpaceX has now launched nearly 900 of the small, low Earth orbit satellites to date.

This launch used a Falcon 9 first stage booster that twice previously, both times earlier this year, including just in September for the delivery of a prior batch of Starlink satellites. The booster was also recovered successfully with a landing at sea aboard SpaceX’s ‘Just Read the Instructions’ floating autonomous landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Earlier this week, Ector County Independent School District in Texas announced itself as a new pilot partner for SpaceX’s Starlink network. Next year, that district will gain connectivity to low latency broadband via Starlink’s network, connecting up to 45 households at first, with plans to expand it to 90 total household customers as more of the constellation is launched and brought online.

SpaceX’s goal with Starlink is to provide broadband service globally at speeds and with latency previously unavailable in hard-to-reach and rural areas. Its large constellation, which will aim to grow to tens of thousands of satellites before it achieves its max target coverage, offers big advantages in terms of latency and reliability vs. large geosynchronous satellites that provide most current satellite-based internet available commercially.

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Oil Industry Expresses Concern, Not Alarm, About Biden Comments

HOUSTON — Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s promise that he would “transition” the country away from oil and natural gas might hurt him politically in Texas and Pennsylvania, but it did not come as a surprise to many in the energy industry.

Oil and gas executives have been keenly aware that the world is starting to move from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, although they strongly argue that their industry will continue to provide cheap and plentiful energy for decades to come. And several of them said on Friday that while they did not like Mr. Biden’s comments, they were not alarmed by them, either.

What ultimately matters to the industry is not whether there would be an energy transition, but how rapid it would be and whether companies would be allowed to exploit oil and gas reserves by offsetting their environmental impact by capturing and storing greenhouse gas emissions.

Large European oil companies are embracing the change that Mr. Biden called for as concerns over climate change grow and investors begin to shun fossil-fuel businesses. For example, BP has announced that over the next decade it will shrink its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase investments of renewables tenfold, to $5 billion a year.

But the U.S. oil industry, which has donated much more to President Trump’s campaign than to Mr. Biden’s, has been more reluctant to change its business models.

Executives note that natural gas is rapidly replacing coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Gas also complements renewables by providing power when the sun does not shine and the wind is still. Some energy executives have even endorsed levying a tax on the emissions that are causing climate change, arguing that it would create incentives for carbon capture and storage, which would reduce emissions.

“There needs to be a large workhorse, and ultimately that is what we are,” said George Stark, director of external affairs for Cabot Oil and Gas, which has extensive natural gas operations in Pennsylvania. “We complement wind and solar. You need something that can run on an ongoing basis.”

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Mr. Stark, like others in the industry, said he found Mr. Biden’s comments concerning, but stopped short of criticizing the former vice president harshly. “The opportunity will be there for a greener dialogue that has to take place regarding this whole notion of a transition,” he said.

In Thursday’s debate, Mr. Biden said he would seek to replace fossil fuels with renewables “over time,” noting that the oil industry “pollutes significantly.”

But he had previously said he was against ending hydraulic fracturing of shale fields, a common practice in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio. And some oil and gas executives said they liked parts of an energy plan that Mr. Biden put out this summer.

After the debate, Mr. Biden sought to clarify his remarks by saying fossil fuels would not be eliminated until 2050. In remarks that seemed designed to appeal to Democratic progressives and working-class voters who rely on fossil fuel jobs, he added that he wanted to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

“Of course we were disappointed in the vice president’s comments,” Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s leading lobbying group in Washington, said in an interview. “You can’t just snap your fingers and get to a place where you are suddenly no longer using natural gas.’’

But Mr. Sommers also noted that Mr. Biden had expressed enough ambiguity that a rapid change in oil and gas shale fields was not likely.

The timing of the transition is hard to pin down, in part because the energy industry has been undergoing rapid change in recent years. The United States was importing increasing amounts of oil and natural gas just 15 years ago when suddenly hydraulic fracturing produced a glut of both fuels and made the United States a large exporter.

Now electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, and the costs of wind and solar power are dropping rapidly. Coal, which was the dominant power fuel at the beginning of the century, is in deep decline, losing out to natural gas and renewables.

“The fact that oil and gas are 70 percent of the world’s energy means that you can’t change that on a dime,” said Jon Olson, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin. “If we don’t manage the transition really well, we could end up with energy shortages and all kinds of disasters.”

That still leaves the enduring politics of oil and gas in places, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, that the Democrats would like to win but where tens of thousands of jobs are directly or indirectly linked to fossil fuel production or processing. One plant, being built by Royal Dutch Shell in Western Pennsylvania to produce plastics from a natural gas byproduct, is providing construction jobs for thousands of workers.

After watching the debate, Mike Belding, chairman of the Greene County Commission in Western Pennsylvania, said he was concerned about the economic consequences of a Biden presidency.

“Regionally, coal, natural gas and oil have been an economic and work force-driving industry over the past century,” he said in an email. “Newly developed technology, like fracking and cracker plant operations, have great potential to drive our economies for the next century.”

But the growth of oil and gas exploration in recent years has also angered some voters in Pennsylvania, who said it had not been an economic boon to many residents and criticized the industry’s environmental record.

“We’ve been transitioning, and let’s keep transitioning,” said Lois Bower-Bjornson, a resident of Washington County in Southwestern Pennsylvania and a field organizer for the Clean Air Council, an environmental group. “It’s a question of economics. They’ve produced too much gas and have nowhere to put it.”

Peter Eavis contributed reporting.

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Oil Industry Turns to Mergers and Acquisitions to Survive

HOUSTON — The once mighty oil and gas industry is flailing, desperately trying to survive a pandemic that has sharply reduced demand for its products.

Most companies have cut back drilling, laid off workers and written off assets. Now some are seeking out merger and acquisition targets to reduce costs. ConocoPhillips announced on Monday that it was acquiring Concho Resources for $9.7 billion, the biggest deal in the industry since oil prices collapsed in March.

The acquisition, days after the completion of Chevron’s takeover of Noble Energy, would create one of the country’s biggest shale drillers and signals an accelerating industry consolidation as oil prices languish around $40 a barrel, just above the levels many businesses need to break even. Just last month Devon Energy said it would buy WPX Energy for $2.6 billion.

But many investors are not sure such deal making will be enough to protect the industry from a sharp decline. The share prices of ConocoPhillips and Concho closed down by about 3 percent on Monday. The big problem is that the fortunes of oil companies are fundamentally tied to oil and natural gas prices, which remain stubbornly low. Few experts expect a full recovery of oil demand before 2022, and some analysts have gone so far as to declare that oil demand might have peaked in 2019 and could slide in the years to come as the popularity of electric cars grows.

“There’s a lot more red ink than there is black gold,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, who periodically advises the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “Companies are trying to hunker down and weather the storm. Most people don’t think the oil price will recover for a couple of years.”

More than 50 North American oil and gas companies with debts totaling more than $50 billion have sought bankruptcy protection this year. Among the casualties was Chesapeake Energy, a shale pioneer based in Oklahoma City. More failures could come in the next two years as companies are required to repay tens of billions of dollars in debt.

Oil companies are facing daunting uncertainties, particularly as concerns over climate change mount and governments impose tougher regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Small companies fear a crackdown on methane leaks and tightening regulations, especially if former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. becomes president and Democrats take control of the Senate.

European oil companies have already begun pivoting away from oil and gas, plotting investments in renewable energy like wind and solar to attract new investors. While those companies have had limited success so far, American companies have for the most part stuck with their traditional businesses. They have adapted to low oil and gas prices by slashing investments by 30 percent or more. The oil and gas rig count has dropped by 569 since last fall, to only 282 operating across the country.

Oil companies are hoarding cash and renegotiating contracts with service companies that drill and complete wells. Rig rental rates are down roughly 10 percent, pressuring the companies that do the field work. More than 100,000 American oil workers have lost their jobs in recent months.

ConocoPhillips, the largest American independent oil company, has been something of an outlier, recently raising its dividend and buying back shares. Nevertheless, ConocoPhillips’s stock price has dropped by roughly half so far this year.

The company is a major producer in the Bakken shale field of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford shale field in South Texas. By acquiring Concho, it will become a major player in the world’s most lucrative shale field, the Permian Basin, which straddles West Texas and New Mexico.

With Concho’s 550,000 acres in the Permian, ConocoPhillips will more than triple its 170,000-acre position in the basin, which became the world’s most productive oil field last year.

Concho is little known outside Texas but became a major oil producer after it bought RSP Permian for $9.5 billion in 2018. Concho produced more than 300,000 barrels in the second quarter.

“Together ConocoPhillips and Concho will have unmatched scale and quality,” said Ryan M. Lance, ConocoPhillips’s chairman and chief executive, referring to their joint balance sheet, resource reserves and personnel.

The deal would help make ConocoPhillips one of the largest players in the Permian, putting it in the same league as companies that are much bigger than it over all.

“The combination is remarkable,” said Robert Clarke, a vice president and oil analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm. “Just in regards to scale, ConocoPhillips is adding enough Permian production to nip at the heels of ExxonMobil’s massive program.”

As the shale industry grew over the last decade or so, many smaller companies poured billions of dollars into the Permian and other parts of the country. Now, the process appears to be headed in the opposite direction as the industry retrenches and becomes smaller.

Investment in U.S. shale oil has dropped to an estimated $45 billion this year from roughly $100 billion annually in 2018 and 2019, according to the International Energy Agency. In its annual report released this month, the Paris-based organization said a shakeout was underway.

“The influence of large players is set to grow as acreage is consolidated by larger industry players, and the focus on growth is set to be supplanted over time by a focus on returns,” the report said. “The exuberance and breakneck growth of the early years may be replaced by something a little steadier.”

American oil production fell to 11.2 million barrels a day in September from 13 million at the beginning of the year. The Energy Department expects production to fall an additional 200,000 barrels a day by mid-2021 as companies drill fewer new wells to replace older ones.

The industry has no choice but to cut back. Americans drove 12.3 percent fewer miles in August than they did a year earlier, according to the Transportation Department.

Globally, daily oil consumption was down more than 6 percent in September from a year earlier, according to the Energy Department. Oil production continues to outpace demand, keeping inventory levels high and prices low.

And the pandemic is not yet under control in many parts of the world. If sustained, the recent increase in coronavirus infections in the United States, Europe and elsewhere could reduce demand for oil and gas even further in the coming months.