Robotics roundup

Robotics took a small step into the wild world of SPACs this week, as Berkshire Grey announced its plan to go public by Q2. Setting aside some of the bigger issues with using the reverse merger route we’ve discussed plenty, BG is an ideal candidate for this next major step for a number of reasons.

First, the company’s got a track record and a ton of interest. I visited their HQ early last year, before the country shut down. Their plans were already fairly aggressive, with the wind of a recently raised $263 million Series B at their back. Retailers everywhere are already looking to automation as a way of staying competitive with the ominous monolith that is Amazon.

The mega-retailer has already acquired and deployed a ton of robots in fulfillment centers across the world. The latest number I’ve seen is 200,000. That comes from early 2020, so the number has no doubt increased since then. As Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk told me the other week, “There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.” As with so many things these days, it’s Amazon versus the world.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

Beyond its knack for raising money by the boatload, Berkshire Grey is the company you go to when you’re looking to automate a factory from the ground, up. The company says current warehouse automation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%. It’s a figure I’ve seen tossed around before, and certainly points to a ton of opportunity. BG’s offering isn’t lights-out automation, but it’s a pretty full-feature solution.

Locus, which just raised a healthy $150M Series E, represents a different end of the spectrum. Similar to offerings from companies like Fetch, it offers a more plug-and-play approach to automation. The lowered barrier of entry means a far less costly on-ramp. It also means you don’t have to shut down your warehouses for an extended period to implement the tech. It’s a more workable solution for situations with contract-based clients or temporary seasonal needs.

The company uses a RaaS (robot-as-a-service) model to deploy its technology. That’s something you’re going to be hearing more and more of around the industry. Like the HaaS (the “h” being hardware) model, the company essentially rents out these super-pricey machines, rather than selling them outright. It’s another way to lower the barrier of entry, and it gives the robotics companies the opportunity to offer continuous service upgrades.

Image Credits: Future Acres

It’s a model Future Acres, a Southern Californian agtech startup, is exploring as it comes out of stealth. Things are still early days for the company, which spun out of Wavemaker Partners (which also developed food service robotics company Miso). Among other things, the company is looking toward a crowdfunded raise by way of SeedInvest. I’ve not seen a lot of robotics companies take that route, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Like logistics, agtech is shaping up to be a pretty massive category for robotics investments. FarmWise was ahead of that curve, announcing a $14.5 million round back in 2019 (bringing its total to north of $20 million). This week the Bay Area startup added crop dusting functionality to its weed-pulling robot.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance understandably grabbed the biggest robotics headlines of the week. Landing with a parachute sporting the JPL motto, “Dare mighty things,” the rover sent back some of the best and most stunning images of Mars to date.

MSCHF’s livestream, on the other hand, was a bit more spotty. But aside from a fair number of interruptions with the feed, I suspect the company’s 40th drop went about as well as it could have hoped. Prior to announcing that it would mount a remote-control paintball gun to the back of Spot, Boston Dynamics issued a statement condemning the move:

Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

Image Credits: MSCHF

MSCHF seemed to bask in the attention, even before its name was revealed to the public. At the very least, the stunt was a success from the standpoint of having ignited a conversation about the future of robotics. Boston Dynamics intrinsically understands that its robots sometimes freak people out — it’s a big part of the reason we get viral videos from the company, like the recent one featuring various robots dancing to The Contours.

Among other things, the company is pushing back against the dystopian optics of shows like Black Mirror. Of course, a paintball gun isn’t a weapon, per say. But for the moment, optics are also important. A rep from the company told me, “I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house. Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale.”

The ACLU notably raised concern last year after footage from one of our events featuring Spot being used in the field by the Massachusetts police made the rounds. This week, the NYPD deployed a Spot robot yet again — this time at the scene of a home invasion in the Bronx (not to mention a new paint job and the name “Digidog” for some reason). Your own interpretation of those particular optics will likely depend on, among other things, your feelings about cops.

Certainly police departments have utilized robotics for decades for bomb disposal. It’s true that Boston Dynamics (along with much of the robotics industry) got early funding from DARPA. Spot in its current form isn’t much as far as war machines go, but I think these are important conversations to have at this stage in robotic evolution. Certainly there are military drones in the world, and have been for more than a decade.

That’s an important ethical conversation. As is the responsibility of robotics manufacturers once their machines are out in the world. Boston Dynamics does due diligence when selling its robots, but does it continue to be responsible for them once it no longer owns them? That’s certainly not a question we’re going to answer this week.

Future Acres launches with the arrival of crop-transporting robot, Carry

When people ask me which robotics categories are poised for the biggest growth, I often point to agriculture. The technology already has a strong foothold in places like warehouse and logistics, but it’s impossible to look at the American – and global – farming community and not see a lot of potential for human-assisted automation.

The category still seems fairly wide open — but not for lack of interest. There are a number of companies both large and small carving out niches in the category. For now, at least, it seems there’s room for a number of different players. After all, needs vary greatly from farm to farm and crop to crop.

Santa Monica-based Future Acres is launching today, with plans to tackle grape picking. An outgrowth of Wavemaker Partners — the same firm that gave the world burger-flipping Miso Robotics — the startup is also announce its first robot, Carry.

Image Credits: Future Acres

“We see Carry as a kind of harvesting sidekick for workers. It’s an autonomous harvesting companion,” CEO Suma Reddy tells TechCrunch. “What it can do in the real world is transport up to 500 lbs. of crops in all terrain and all weather. It can increase production efficiency by up to 80%, which means it pays for itself in only 80 days.”

Carry relies on AI to transport hand-picked crops, working alongside humans rather than attempting to replace the delicate picking process outright. The company is expecting that farms will purchase multiple machines that can work in tandem to speed up their process and help reduce the human strain of moving the crops around manually.

Image Credits: Future Acres

The company is still in early stages, having developed a prototype of Carry. It’s also exploring some partnerships for development. The systems would run $10,000-$15,000 up front, though the company says it’s looking at a RaaS (robotics as a service) model, as a way to defer that cost.

Interest in agricultural robotics has only increased during the pandemic, amid health concerns and labor issues. The company is building on that interest by launching a campaign on SeedInvest, in hopes of raising $3 million, in addition to funding already provided by Wavemaker.

Watch Perseverance’s harrowing descent to the surface of Mars

NASA has released video taken by the Perseverance landing module and rover showing the famous “seven minutes of terror” in a bracing first-person perspective. The images sent back Friday were just a teaser — this is the full experience, and the first video of a Mars landing ever captured.

A full description of the rover’s descent and mission can be found here, but briefly stated here’s what happened:

After decelerating in the atmosphere interplanetary velocity, the heat shield is jettisoned and the parachute deployed. Beneath the heat shield are a number of cameras and instruments, which scanned the landscape to find a good landing spot. At a certain altitude and speed the parachute is detached and the “jetpack” lower stage takes over, using rockets to maneuver towards the landing area. At about 70 feet above the surface the “skycrane” dangles the rover itself out of the lander and softly plops it down on the ground before the jetpack flies off to crash at a safe distance.

Diagram showing the various parts of the Perseverance landing process

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The whole process takes about seven minutes, the last few seconds of which which are an especially white-knuckle ride.

While previous rovers sent back lots of telemetry and some imagery, this level of visual documentation is a first. Even Insight, launched in 2018, wasn’t able to send back this kind of footage.

“This is the first time we’ve actually been able to capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars,” said Mike Watkins, head of JPL, at a press conference. “These are really amazing videos, we all binge watched them over the weekend if you can call a one minute video binge watching. We will learn something by looking at the performance of the vehicle in these videos but a lot of it is also to bring you along on our journey.”

The team discussed the entry, descent, and landing camera system or EDL cams, which were made both to monitor how the process went and to provide the visceral experience that the whole team craved.

“I don’t know about you, but it is unlikely at this point in my career that I will pilot a spacecraft down to the surface of Mars,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager of Perseverance at JPL. “But when you see this imagery I think you will feel like you are getting a glimpse into what it would be like to land successfully in Jezero crater with perseverance.”

There were upward-facing cameras on the capsule, jetpack, and rover, and downward-facing cameras on the latter two as well, providing shots in both directions for practically the whole process. This image of the heat shield falling away feels iconic already – revealing the desert landscape of Mars much like film we’ve seen of Apollo landings on the Moon:

Animated image of Perseverance jettisoning its heat shield as it descends toward Mars.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

You can see the whole thing below:

Over 30 gigabytes of imagery were captured of the descent even though one of the cameras failed when the parachute deployed.

Practically every frame of the video offers new information about the process of landing on Mars — for instance, one of the springs used to eject the heat shield can be seen to have disconnected, though it didn’t affect the process. All the footage has been and no doubt will continue to be scrutinized for other insights.

In addition to these amazing landing videos, Perseverance has sent back a number of full-color images taken by its navigation cameras, though not all of its systems are up and running yet. The team stitched together the first images of Perseverance inspecting itself and its surroundings to form this panorama:

Panoramic image of the Martian landscape and Perseverance rover.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ll have many, many more images soon as the team processes and uploads them.

As a parting “gift,” the team provided the remarkable first sound recording from the surface of Mars; they hoped that this would both provide new insights and also let anyone who can’t see the images experience the landing in a different way.

The EDL system included a microphone to capture the sound of the landing, but sadly didn’t work during the descent. It is, however, working perfectly well on the surface and has now captured the ambience of the Red Planet — and while the sound of a gust of wind may not be particularly alien, it’s incredible to think that this truly is wind blowing across another world.

MSCHF mounted a remote-control paintball gun to Spot

I’ve piloted Spot a number of ways in a number of different settings. I had the chance to control the robot for the first time at one of our Robotics events a number of years back, and drove one around an obstacle course at Boston Dynamics’ headquarters. More recently, I navigated it via web browser as a test of the robot’s new remote interface.

But a recent test drive was different. For one thing, it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Boston Dynamics. Of course, the highly sophisticated quadrupedal robot has been out in the world for a while, and a few enterprising souls have begun to offer a remote Spot walking experience through the streets of San Francisco.

The latest project form MSCHF isn’t that. That should come as no surprise, of course. The Brooklyn-based company is never that straightforward. It’s the same organization that gave us the “pirate radio” streaming service All The Streams.FM and that wild Amazon Echo ultrasonic jammer. More than anything, their events are comments — on privacy, on consumerism or this case, a kind of dystopian foreshadowing of what robotics might become.

Like the rest of the world, the company was fascinated when Boston Dynamics put Spot up for sale — but unlike most of us, MSCHF actually managed to cobble together $75,000 to buy one.

And then it mounted a paintball gun to its back.

Image Credits: MSCHF

Starting Wednesday, users will be able to pilot a Spot unit through MSCHF’s site, and fire off a paintball gun in a closed setting. The company calls it “Spot’s Rampage.”

“The stream will start Wednesday at 1 PM EST,” MSCHF’s Daniel Greenberg told TechCrunch. “We will have a four-camera livestream going and as long as you’re on the site on your phone, you will have an equal chance of being able to control Spot, and every two minutes the driver will change. It should go for a few hours.”

Ahead of the launch of Spot’s web portal, the company built an API to remotely control both Spot’s SDK and the paintball gun mounted to the robot’s back. It’s a setup Boston Dynamics isn’t particularly thrilled with. Understandably so. For a company that has long been dealing with the blowback of cautionary science fiction like Black Mirror, the optics of a third-party mounting a gun — even one that shoots paint — are less than ideal.

Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch that it was interested in working with the company early on.

“They came to us with the idea that they were going to do a creative project with Spot,” a rep told TechCrunch. “They’re a creative group of guys, who have done a bunch of creative things. In our conversations, we said that if you want to cooperate with us, we want to make it clear that the robots will not be used in any way that hurts people.”

Boston Dynamics balked when paintball gun entered the conversation. On Friday, it issued the following statement through Twitter:

Today we learned that an art group is planning a spectacle to draw attention to a provocative use of our industrial robot, Spot. To be clear, we condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

In addition, all buyers must agree to our Terms and Conditions of Sale, which state that our products must be used in compliance with the law, and cannot be used to harm or intimidate people or animals. Any violation of our Terms of Sale will automatically void the product’s warranty and prevent the robot from being updated, serviced, repaired or replaced. Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives. This art, however, fundamentally misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.

The statement is in line with the language in Spot’s contract, which prohibits using the robot to do anything illegal, or to intimidate or harm people. The company says it does additional “due diligence” with potential customers, including background checks.

Image Credits: MSCHF

The application is something of a gray area where Boston Dynamics is concerned. MSCHF approached the robotics company with its idea and Boston Dynamics balked, believing it wasn’t in-line with the stated mission for the quadrupedal robots. The official Spot’s Rampage site notes:

We talked with Boston Dynamics and they HATED [emphasis theirs] this idea. They said they would give us another TWO Spots for FREE if we took the gun off. That just made us want to do this even more and if our Spot stops working just know they have a backdoor override built into each and every one of these little robots.

Boston Dynamics says the company’s “understanding of the interaction” is “inaccurate.”

“We get approached by marketing opportunities all the time to create a really fantastic and compelling experience,” the company adds. “Selling one robot is not that interesting. Creating an amazing interactive experience is really compelling for us. One of the things they pitched to us was an interactive idea. It’s an expensive robot and they wanted to create an interactive experience where anybody can control the robot. We thought that was super cool and compelling.”

Boston Dynamics says it pitched the idea of using Spot’s robot arm to paint the physical space with a brush, rather than using the paintball gun. The company also offered to send technicians to the site to help maintain the robot during the stream, along with a few models as back up.

MSCHF’s inclusion of the paintball gun is, ultimately, about more than simply painting the canvas. The image of the robot with a gun — even one that only shoots paint — is menacing. And that’s kind of the point.

“It’s easy to look at these robots dance and cavort and see them as cute semi-sentient little friends,” says Greenberg. “They’re endearing when they mess up and fall over. We’ve adopted the trappings of that scenario by creating a ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ scenario. Still, it’s worth remembering the big versions of Spot [Big Dog] were explicitly military mules, and that their public deployments tend to be by city agencies and law enforcement. At the end of the day, Spot is a terrestrial UAV – when you get to drive this robot and experience the thrill of pulling the trigger your adrenaline spikes — but, we hope, a few minutes later you feel a distinct chill. Anyone in their right mind knows these little cuties will kill people sooner or later.”

While early Boston Dynamics robots were, indeed, funded by DARPA for use as transport vehicles, the company is quick to distance itself from even the remotest hint of ominous imagery. Boston Dynamics came under fire from the ACLU after showcasing footage of a Spot being used in Massachusetts State police drills onstage at a TechCrunch robotics event.

Image Credits: MSCHF

The company told TechCrunch at the time:

Right now we’re at a scale where we can pick and choose the partners we engage with and make sure that they have a similar deployment and a vision for how robots are used. For example, not using robots in a way that would physically harm or intimidate people. But also have a realistic expectation for what a robot can and cannot do.

As MSCHF prepares to launch its event, the company is echoing those sentiments.

“I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house,” Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch. “Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale. Had this concept been brought to us while we were in the initial sales discussions, we probably would have said, ‘there’s Arduino quadruped that you could easily put this activation together. Go do that. This isn’t representative of how we view our technology being used.’ ”

Image Credits: MSCHF

But the question of whether the company can put the toothpaste back in the tube remains. In cases of violations of the Terms of Service, the company can opt not to renew the license, which effectively deactivates it the next time a firmware update is due. Other cases could essentially void the warranty, meaning the company won’t service it.

A paintball gun being fired in a closed space likely doesn’t fall under harm, intimidation or illegal activity, however. So it’s not entirely clear whether Boston Dynamics has a direct course of action in this case.

“This is something we’re evaluating now, around this particular use case,” Boston Dynamics says. “We do have other terms of service in there, regarding modification of the robot in a way that makes it unsafe. We’re trying to understand what the implications are.”

Boston Dynamics (whose sale to Hyundai is expected to close in June) has devoted a good deal of time to showcasing the various tasks the robot can perform, from routine inspections at hazard sites to the complex dance moves it’s performed in a recent viral video. MSCHF’s primary — and, really, only — use is an interactive art piece.

“To be honest, we don’t have any further plans [for the robot],” says Greenberg. “I know we won’t do another drop with it as we do not do repeats so we will just have to get really creative. Maybe a waking cup holder.”

Dizzying view of Perseverance mid-descent makes its ‘7 minutes of terror’ feel very real

The Perseverance Mars rover landed safely yesterday, but only after a series of complex maneuvers as it descended at high speed through the atmosphere, known by the team as the “seven minutes of terror.” NASA has just shared a hair-raising image of the rover as it dangled from its jetpack above the Martian landscape, making that terror a lot easier to understand.

Published with others to the rover’s Twitter account (as always, in the first person), the image is among the first sent back from the rover; black-and-white shots from its navigation cameras appeared almost instantly after landing, but this is the first time we’ve seen the rover — or anything, really — from this perspective.

The image was taken by cameras on the descent stage or “jetpack,” a rocket-powered descent module that took over once the craft had sufficiently slowed via both atmospheric friction and its parachute. Once the heat shield was jettisoned, Perseverance scanned the landscape for a safe landing location, and once that was found, the jetpack’s job was to fly it there.

Perseverance rover and its spacecraft in an exploded view showing its several main components.

The image at the top of the story was taken by the descent stage’s “down-look cameras.” Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it was about 70 feet above the landing spot, the jetpack would have deployed the “sky crane,” a set of cables that would lower the rover to the ground from a distance that safely allowed the jetpack to rocket itself off to a crash landing far away.

The image at top was taken just moments before landing — it’s a bit hard to tell whether those swirls in the Martian soil are hundreds, dozens or just a handful of feet below, but follow-up images made it clear that the rocks you can see are pebbles, not boulders.

Photo of the Mars rover Perseverance's wheel and rocks on the surface.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The images are a reminder that the processes we see only third-hand as observers of an HQ tracking telemetry data sent millions of miles from Mars are in fact very physical, fast and occasionally brutal things. Seeing such an investment of time and passion dangling from cords above a distant planet after a descent that started at 5 kilometers per second, and required about a hundred different things to go right or else end up just another crater on Mars… it’s sobering and inspiring.

That said, that first person perspective may not even be the most impressive shot of the descent. Shortly after releasing that, NASA published an astonishing image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which managed to capture Perseverance mid-fall under its parachute:

Photo taken from 700km away by the Mars reconnaissance Orbiter of the Perseverance rover descending under its parachute.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Keep in mind that MRO was 700 km away, and traveling at over 3 km/second at the time this shot was taken. “The extreme distance and high speeds of the two spacecraft were challenging conditions that required precise timing and for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to both pitch upward and roll hard to the left so that Perseverance was viewable by HiRISE at just the right moment,” NASA wrote in the description of the photo.

Chances are we’re going to be treated to a fuller picture of the “seven minutes of terror” soon, once NASA collects enough imagery from Perseverance, but for now the images above serve as reminders of the ingenuity and skill of the team there, and perhaps a sense of wonder and awe at the capabilities of science and engineering.

Locus Robotics has raised a $150M Series E

Massachusetts-based Locus Robotics today announced a $150 million Series E. The round, led by Tiger Global Management and Bond, brings the firm’s total to around $250 to date, and values the robotics company at $1 billion. Locus is notable for a more modular and flexible solution for automating warehouses than many of its competitors (see: Berkshire Grey). The company essentially leases out robotic fleet for organizes looking to automate logistics.

“We can change the wings on the plane while it’s flying,” CEO Rick Faulk tells TechCrunch. Basically no one else can do that. Companies want flexible automation. They don’t want to bolt anything to the floor. If you’re a third-party logistics company and you have a two, three, four-year contract, the last thing you want to do is invest $25-$50 million to buy a massive solution, bolt it to the floor and be locked into all of this upfront expense.”

The company currently has some 4,000 robots deployed across 80 sites. Roughly 80% of its deployments are in the U.S., with the remaining 20% in Europe. Part of this massive funding round will go toward expanding international operations, including a bigger push into the EU, as well as the APAC region, where it presently doesn’t have much of a footprint.

The company will also be investing in R&D, sales and marketing and increasing its current headcount of 165 by 75 in the coming year.

The pandemic is clearly a driver in interest around this brand of automation, with more companies looking toward robotics for help.

“COVID has put a spike in the growth of online ordering, clearly, and that spike is probably a four to five year jump,” says Faulk. “If you look at the trend of e-commerce, it’s been on a steady upward tick. It was about 11% last year and COVID put a spike up to 16/17%. We think that genie’s out of the bottle, and it’s not going back any time soon.”

The funding round also points to a company that seemingly has no desire to be acquired by a larger name, akin to Kiva Systems’ transformation into Amazon Robotics.

“We have no interest in being acquired,” the CEO says. “We think we can build the most and greatest value by operating independently. There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.”

Hyundai shrinks its ‘walking car’ robot to carry cargo, get rides from drones

Hyundai Motor Group is back with a new “walking car” robot that can use its wheels to roll along a path or stand up and navigate tougher terrain on its legs. This time, the concept is designed to carry cargo and is small enough to be carried by a drone.

The TIGER robot — short for transforming intelligent ground excursion robot — is the first “uncrewed” ultimate mobility vehicle (UMV) concept to come out of New Horizons Studio, the Mountain View, California facility that is home to Hyundai Motor Group’s UMV development. Tiger follows in the wheeled-footsteps of Elevate, a larger concept vehicle designed to carry people that the company unveiled in 2019 at the CES tech trade show.

Hyundai walking elevate robot

Image Credits: Screenshot/Hyundai

While concepts don’t always translate into real products, New Horizons Studio head John Suh told TechCrunch that his aim is to bring Tiger to life “as soon as possible,” adding that it would likely be a five-year process.

Suh said the team will spend the next two years focused on solving some core technical problems to establish a baseline design. In 2023 and 2024, the team will get to the beta-product stage and advanced testing will begin before finally becoming a product customers can buy.

Today’s version of the Tiger is based on a modular platform architecture, just like its larger cousin. The robot has a leg and wheel locomotion system, 360-degree directional control, a storage bay that can carry goods and a range of sensors for remote observation. It’s also designed to connect to a drone, which can charge the robot while flying it to its destination.

The Tiger has two modes that are deployed depending on the terrain. On smoother, less complex surfaces, the robot’s legs retract and the vehicle uses all four wheels to move. If the vehicle gets stuck or faces an obstacle like a small wall, berm or log, it can stand up, lock the wheels and then walk.

This is the first version of Tiger — known as X-1 for experimental — suggesting New Horizons will be bringing out more variants in the future. This one was created in partnership with engineering design software company Autodesk and concept design firm Sundberg-Ferar.

Researchers look to ‘worm blobs’ to improve robotic movement

What, you are no doubt asking, is a worm a blob? Well, it’s a blob of worms, obviously. More specifically, it’s a blob of California blackworms. It’s not a flock, nor a swam nor a school. It’s a big, undulating mass of a Lumbriculus variegatus tangled up, but somehow moving as one.

Roboticists, of course, have a long, storied history of drawing inspiration from nature. This time out, a team at Georgia Tech studied the aforementioned worm blob in hopes of learning gaining insight into its unusual form of locomotion. The researchers believe they can apply some of the learnings to rethink the way robots move.

The team published its findings in an academic journal earlier this month. According to the research, the blobs — which range from 10 to 50,000 individual organisms — are a kind of survival mechanism to adapt to things like changing temperatures. A few individuals are capable of moving the larger group, with around two or three being required to move a group of five.

The researchers set up a series of six 3D-printed robots with two arms and two light sensors a piece. Mesh and pins on the arms allowed the robots to become entangled with one another.

“Depending on the intensity, the robots try to move away from the light,” researcher Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin said in a release tied to the news. While there was no direct communication between the robots, they effectively operated as a group. “They generate emergent behavior that is similar to what we saw in the worms.”

Image Credits: Georgia Tech

The scientists think that sort of collective action can be applied to make individual robots more collaborative and cohesive units. “Often people want to make robot swarms do specific things, but they tend to be operating in pristine environments with simple situations,” Professor Daniel Goldman says of the research. “With these blobs, the whole point is that they work only because of physical interaction among the individuals. That’s an interesting factor to bring into robotics.”

DoorDash acquires salad-making robotics startup, Chowbotics

DoorDash is expanding its robotic footprint into the kitchen. The delivery service is set to acquire Chowbotics, a Bay Area-based robotics best known for its salad-making robot, Sally. TechCrunch has confirmed the acquisition, which was first noted by The Wall Street Journal.

“We have long admired the work that Chowbotics has done to increase access to fresh meals, with its groundbreaking robotics product and vision,” DoorDash co-founder Stanley Tang said in a comment offered to TechCrunch. “At DoorDash, we are always working to innovate and continue improving how we support our merchant partners and their success — and are excited to leverage this technology to do so in new ways. With the Chowbotics team on board, we can explore new use cases and customers, providing another service to help our merchants grow.”

Founded in 2014, Chowbotics has raised around $21 million to date, including an $11 million round back in 2018. The company’s vending machine-style salad bar robot was already well-positioned for the pandemic, removing a human element from the food preparation process — not to mention the fact that salad bars and buffets tend to be open air affairs. In October, the startup added a contactless feature to the robot, letting users order ahead of time, via app.

“Joining the DoorDash team unlocks new possibilities for Chowbotics and the technology that this team has built over the past seven years,” CEO Rick Wilmer said in a statement. “As the leader in food delivery and on-demand logistics, DoorDash has the unparalleled reach and expertise to help us grow and deploy our technology more broadly, so together, we can make fresh, nutritious food easy for more people.”

It’s not entirely clear how the company’s technology will fit into the delivery service’s current offering, though DoorDash notes it will “improve consumer access to fresh and safe meals, and enhance our robust merchant offerings and logistics platform.” It also remains to be seen whether Chowbotics will continue to operate as its own entity within the broader DoorDash. We’ve reached out for more insight.

“At DoorDash, we strive to become a merchant’s first call when they want to grow their business,” Tang said. “What excites us most about Chowbotics is that the team has developed a remarkable tool for helping merchants grow. Bringing Chowbotics’ technology into the DoorDash platform gives us a new opportunity to help merchants expand their current menu offerings and reach new customers in new markets — which is a fundamental part of our merchant-first approach to empowering local economies.”

DoorDash has been working with robotics companies for a number of years now. Perhaps the most prominent example is a partnership with Starship Technologies to explore food delivery robots. Though that technology has seen a fair number of roadblocks among local officials not eager to turn their sidewalks over to robots. The delivery company likens Chowbotics’ kiosk-style technology to its work with ghost kitchens, effectively serving as a conduit to help expand food options at local merchants – be it in store or through delivery. The former will likely be of more interest once the current pandemic is in the rear view.

Details of the acquisition have not been disclosed.

MIT is building a ‘one-stop shop’ for 3D-printing robots

Additive manufacturing has proven an ideal solution for certain tasks, but the technology still lacks more traditional methods in a number of categories. One of the biggest is the requirement for post-printing assembly. 3D printers can create extremely complex components, but an outside party (be it human or machine) is required to put them together.

MIT’s CSAIL department this week showcased “LaserFactory,” a new project that attempts to develop robotics, drones and other machines than can be fabricated as part of a “one-stop shop.” The system is comprised of a software kit and hardware platform designed to create structures and assemble circuitry and sensors for the machine.

A more fully realized version of the project will be showcased at an event in May, but the team is pulling back the curtain a bit to show what the concept looks like in practice. Here’s a breakdown from CSAIL’s page:

Let’s say a user has aspirations to create their own drone. They’d first design their device by placing components on it from a parts library, and then draw on circuit traces, which are the copper or aluminum lines on a printed circuit board that allow electricity to flow between electronic components. They’d then finalize the drone’s geometry in the 2D editor. In this case, they’d use propellers and batteries on the canvas, wire them up to make electrical connections, and draw the perimeter to define the quadcopter’s shape.

Printing circuit boards is certainly nothing new. What sets CSAIL’s machine apart here is the breadth of functionality that’s been jammed into the machine here. An accompanying video lays it out pretty well:

Of course, this is early days — we’re still months out from the official presentation. There are a lot of questions, and more to the point, a lot of potential points of failure for a complex machine like this — especially one that seems to have non-experts as a target audience.

“Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge,” PhD student and lead author Martin Nisser says in the release. “By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system.”

The software appears to be a big piece of the puzzle — allowing users to view a version of the product before it’s printed. By then, of course, it’s too late.