Apply to the pitch-off at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

Mark your calendars and dust off your public-speaking skills. This year, there’s an exciting new opportunity at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, which returns to UC Berkeley on March 3, 2020. We’ve added a pitch-off specifically for early-stage startups focused on AI or robotics.

You heard right. In addition to a full day packed with speakers, breakout sessions and Q&As featuring the top names, leading minds and creative makers in robotics and AI, we’re upping the ante. We’ll choose 10 startups to pitch at a private event the night before the show opens. Here’s how it works.

The first step: Apply to the pitch-off by February 1. TechCrunch editors will review all applications and select 10 startups to participate. We’ll notify the founders by February 15 — you’ll have plenty of time to hone your pitch.

You’ll deliver your pitch at a private event, and your audience will consist of TechCrunch editors, main-stage speakers and industry experts. Our panel of VC judges will choose five teams as finalists, and they will pitch the next day on the main stage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.

Talk about an unprecedented opportunity. Place your startup in front of the influential movers and shakers of these two world-changing industries — and get video coverage on TechCrunch, too. We expect attendance to meet or exceed last year’s, when 1,500 people attended the show and tens of thousands followed along online.

Oh, and here’s one more pitch-off perk. Each of the 10 startup team finalists will receive two free tickets to attend TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 the next day.

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place on March 3. Apply to the pitch-off here by February 1. Don’t want to pitch? That’s fine — but don’t miss this epic day-long event dedicated to exploring the latest technology, trends and investment strategies in robotics and AI. Get your early-bird ticket here and save $100. We’ll see you in Berkeley!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Watch experts discuss the future of construction at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

The next big thing in robotics and automation just might be construction. Technology has already revolutionized manufacturing and logistics, and now a number of well-funded startups are looking to do the same to the construction industry. This March at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI, we’ll be bringing together a trio of companies that have the industry and investors buzzing.

Noah Campbell-Ready is the founder and CEO of Built Robotics, a startup that has developed a heavy-duty autonomous bulldozer. The system has already been piloted for 7,500 hours, with a perfect safety record. The company raised a $33 million Series B in September, bringing its total up to $48 million.

Tessa Lau is the CEO and founder of Dusty Robotics, a Bay Area-based startup that has developed a robot designed to help automate building layouts at construction sites. The robot is capable of bringing plans to life with extreme accuracy. Dusty raised a $5 million seed round last month.

Toggle CEO Daniel Blank will be rounding out the panel. A new kid on the block, the Brooklyn-based company raised a $3 million seed round in October for robots to fabricate and assemble rebar.

The companies will be joining us onstage at UC Berkeley on March 3 for TC Sessions: Robotics+AI to discuss how robotics and automation will help transform construction sites of the future.

Einride to launch commercial pilot of driverless electric pods with Coca-Cola European Partners

Autonomous robotic road-riding cargo pod startup Einride has signed a new partner for a commercial pilot on Sweden’s roads, which should be a great test of the company’s electric driverless transportation pods. Einride will be providing service for Coca-Cola European Partners, which is the official authorized bottler, distributor, sales and marketing company for Coca-Cola branded products in Sweden.

The partnership will see Einride commercially operating its transportation system between Coca-Cola European Partners’ warehouse in Jordbro outside Stockholm, and retailer Axfood’s own distribution hub, transporting Coca-Cola brand products to the retailer ahead of sending them off to local retail locations in Sweden.

Coca-Cola European Partners is looking to this partnership as part of its goal to continue to reduce emissions, since Einride’s system could potentially cut CO2 output by as much as 90% compared to current in-use solutions. This pilot is set to take place over the next few years, according to the two companies, and Einride says it hopes that it’ll be able to be on the road as early as some time next year, pending approval from the authorities since it’s a trial that will take place on public roads.

Einride announced $25 million in new funding in October, and has been running trials of the Einride Pod electric transport vehicle it created on public roads since May.

NASA will launch a ‘robot hotel’ to the Space Station on its next SpaceX resupply mission

NASA is going to be sending something it calls a ‘robot hotel’ to the International Space Station aboard the next commercial resupply mission, which is set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this week. The robot hotel is more formally known as the “Robotic Tool Stowage” unit, or the RiTS for short because NASA loves nothing quite so much as it loves acronyms.

Depending on how eager you are to anthropomorphize robots, the ‘hotel’ designation might not be quite as appropriate as ‘garage’ – this unit is essentially a protected parking space for robots when not in use, helping to protect them from potential dangers presented by being in space, including exposure to radiation, and the potential to get hit by micrometeors and other debris.

The first guests at the hotel will be two robots called Robotic External Leak Locators (RELL – bc acronyms). They do what it says on the tin, finding leaks in the ISS exterior hull from the outside, which is a key job. And in the past, they’ve been stored inside the ISS when not in use, but space is at a premium in the station itself, so any time you can save some it’s good new for astronauts and for ongoing research and other equipment.

Plus, the RELLs need to be calibrated when they’re sent out to do their job, a process that requires 12 full hours. Since their new storage environment is already external, it’ll be much easier and quicker for the station’s Dextre robotic arm to retrieve them ad set them to work.

Top mobility VCs discuss their current investment strategies

The mobility industry is rapidly shifting to readjust for an electric and autonomous future.

Automotive companies are increasingly looking outside the manufacturing sector to fuel growth, and companies that used to bank on selling vehicles are now building mobility apps, scooters, and subscription services. Detroit is turning to to Silicon Valley for fresh ideas while Silicon Valley is studying Detroit for proven methods.

We surveyed top VCs in the mobility sector to see where they’re putting their money, and one thing quickly became apparent — investors are funding startups that bring connectivity to mobility. From automobile components to social apps, connectivity is critical to investors and the industry alike.

Reilly Brennan, general partner, Trucks VC
Michael Granoff, managing partner, Maniv Mobility
Jim Adler, founding managing director, Toyota AI Ventures
Dr. Ulrich Quay, managing partner, BMW i Ventures

Answers were edited for clarity.

Reilly Brennan, general partner, Trucks VC

Where are you investing in the automotive space?

We invest in startups that make transportation safer, cleaner, and more accessible. Anything that moves goods or people is interesting to us. We are first interested in exceptional founders, then exceptional ideas. For example, we just invested in a new type of car wash that doesn’t use any soap or chemicals; although it was never our intent to seek out that idea, we really believed in the founders’ vision for making it happen.

Which areas in automotive offer the most opportunity for startups?

There are many big opportunities across transportation — such is the case when you’re operating in markets measured in trillions. Right now, I am more convinced than ever that there is a 10-figure opportunity for a new navigation app — it’s one of the few/only transportation-related apps on everyone’s home screen. Still, the leaders are mostly incumbents (Apple Maps, Google Maps), where the products are good but haven’t made fundamental leaps in years or an app like Waze, which is high utility but low user experience. Other than YouTube, Waze is probably Google’s only social network, although I doubt they think of it like that. For how important navigation is and will be, we’ve been surprised more founders don’t create more there because the value is high. If you are working on something in this space, please email me! [email protected]

What makes a startup attractive for investment from OEMs?
Most OEMs are interested in companies that support their future product vision. Every once in a while, you will find an OEM with an alternative strategy that does not invest in supporting their products, but these are quite rare. As a result, startups who are actively selling in the auto supply chain are the best positioned for auto investment. Remember that many OEMs passed on investing in Uber in the early days.

Dr. Ulrich Quay, managing partner, BMW i Ventures

This robot scientist has conducted 100,000 experiments in a year

Science is exciting in theory, but it can also be dreadfully dull. Some experiments require hundreds or thousands of repetitions or trials — an excellent opportunity to automate. That’s just what MIT scientists have done, creating a robot that performs a certain experiment, observes the results, and plans a follow-up… and has now done so 100,000 times in the year it’s been operating.

The field of fluid dynamics involves a lot of complex and unpredictable forces, and sometimes the best way to understand them is to repeat things over and over until patterns emerge. (Well, it’s a little more complex than that, but this is neither the time nor the place to delve into the general mysteries of fluid dynamics.)

One of the observations that needs to be performed is of “vortex-induced vibration,” a kind of disturbance that matters a lot to designing ships that travel through water efficiently. It involves close observation of an object moving through water… over, and over, and over.

Turns out it’s also a perfect duty for a robot to take over. But the Intelligent Tow Tank, as they call this robotic experimentation platform, is designed not just to do the mechanical work of dragging something through the water, but to intelligently observe the results, change the setup accordingly to pursue further information, and continue doing that until it has something worth reporting.

“The ITT has already conducted about 100,000 experiments, essentially completing the equivalent of all of a Ph.D. student’s experiments every 2 weeks,” say the researchers in their paper, published today in Science Robotics.

The hard part, of course, was not designing the robot (though that was undoubtedly difficult as well) but the logic that lets it understand, at a surface level so to speak, the currents and flows of the fluid system and conduct follow-up experiments that produce useful results.

Normally a human (probably a grad student) would have to observe every trial — the parameters of which may be essentially random — and decide how to move forward. But this is rote work — not the kind of thing an ambitious researcher would like to spend their time doing.

So it’s a blessing that this robot, and others like it, could soon take over the grunt work while humans focus on high-level concepts and ideas. The paper notes other robots at CMU and elsewhere that have demonstrated how automation of such work could proceed.

“This constitutes a potential paradigm shift in conducting experimental research, where robots, computers, and humans collaborate to accelerate discovery and to search expeditiously and effectively large parametric spaces that are impracticable with the traditional approach,” the team writes.

You can read the paper describing the Intelligent Tow Tank here.

FedEx robot sent packing by NYC

FedEx’s autonomous delivery bot got a cold reception from New York City officials.

After the company’s SameDay Bots — named Roxo — popped up on New York City streets last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio and transportation officials delivered a sharp response: Get out.

FedEx told TechCrunch that the bots were there for a preview party for its Small Business Saturday event and are not testing in New York. Even this promotional event was too much for city officials concerned with congestion and bots taking jobs from humans.

After reports of the bot sightings, the mayor tweeted that FedEx didn’t receive permission to deploy the robots; he also criticized the company for using a bot to perform a task that a New Yorker could do. The New York Department of Transportation has sent FedEx a cease-and-desist order to stop operations the bots,  which TechCrunch has viewed.

The letter informs FedEx that its bots violate several vehicle and traffic laws, including that motor vehicles are prohibited on sidewalks. Vehicles that receive approval to operate on sidewalks must receive a special exemption and be registered. 

FedEx has been experimenting with autonomous delivery bots. Postmates and Amazon also have been testing autonomous delivery robots.

FedEx first unveiled its SameDay Bot in February 2019. The company said at the time it planned to work with AutoZone, Lowe’s, Pizza Hut,  Target, Walgreens and Walmart to figure out how autonomous robots might fit into its delivery business. The idea was for FedEx to provide a way for retailers to accept orders from nearby customers and deliver them by bot directly to customers’ homes or businesses the same day.

FedEx said its initials test would involve deliveries between selected FedEx Office locations. Ultimately, the FedEx bot will complement the FedEx SameDay City service, which operates in 32 markets and 1,900 cities.

The company has tested the bots in Memphis, Tennessee as well as Plano and Frisco, Texas and Manchester, New Hampshire, according to a spokesperson.

The underlying roots of the SameDay Bot is the iBot. The FedEx bot was developed in collaboration with DEKA Development & Research Corp. and its founder Dean Kamen who invented the Segway  and iBot wheelchair.

DEKA built upon the power base of the iBot, an FDA-approved mobility device for the disabled population, to develop FedEx’s product.

The FedEx bot is equipped with sensing technology such as LiDAR and multiple cameras, which when combined with machine learning algorithms should allow the device to detect and avoid obstacles and plot a safe path, all while following the rules of the road (or sidewalk).

NASA’s second free-flying assistant robot gets to work

The International Space Station is crewed by more than astronauts these days – NASA activated a free-floating autonomous robot called ‘Bumble’ earlier this year, and now Bumble has a new companion called Honey. Both are Astrobee robots, cube-like “robotic teammates” for ISS astronauts, which ar designed to help with experiments, day-to-day activities and more.

These two robots are alike in all regards, though Honey features yellow accents while Bumble has blue fo the sake of visual identification. Honey will still need to undergo testing before it’s fully ready to start its work in earnest, but it’s going to benefit from its similarity to Bumble – the earlier robot has already mapped the interior of the Space Station’s Kibo module, which means that Honey won’t be starting from scratch since it’s received that mapping data via a software update.

This robotic duo will soon become a trio, since a third Astrobee called ‘Queen’ was delivered to the ISS in July and will go online after Honey is up and running. This is hardly the only example of space-based autonomous robotics in use, but it is an interesting example because these robots are designed to work alongside human astronauts and share their space while operating on their own, untethered in a zero gravity environment.

Eventually, NASA hopes that robots like these will be able to not only make astronauts more efficient in their work by providing additional assistance and managing a portion of their current workload, but also be entrusted with the maintenance of spacecraft and stations when there’s no one on board at all. Astrobee, and its eventual successors, could be the key to establishing more permanent human presences in orbit around the Moon and beyond.

The ACLU wants details about videos of Boston Dynamics robot in police exercises

Back in April at our robotics event at UC Berkeley, Boston Dynamics head Marc Raibert showed off video of the company’s Spot robot in a number of different real world scenarios. Some, like construction and first responders, were familiar to anyone who has been following the company — and automation in general. 

Another scenario, which found the robot opening doors during a training exercise for the Massachusetts State Police, was something different entirely. It was a brief video that demonstrated how the robot could potentially be used to help get human officers out of harm’s way during a terrorist or hostage situation.

All these months later, the video has raised some questions among some civil liberties groups — including, mostly notably, the Massachusetts wing of the ACLU. A public records request filed by the organization is in response to a Facebook post by the department describing the July event that, “seeks to learn more about how your agency uses or has contemplated using robotics.”

ACLU Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Program Director Kade Crockford expanded on the request in a statement provided to TechCrunch:

There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts. All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies. We also need statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence. Massachusetts must do more to ensure safeguards keep pace with technological innovation, and the ACLU is happy to partner with officials at the local and state levels to find and implement solutions to ensure our law keeps pace with technology.

As with any new technology, it’s right to ask many of these questions. Of course, this particular video has the added bonus of combining people’s distrust of big, scary robots with their (arguably deserved) distrust of law enforcement. It’s pretty easy to watch a video like that and go immediately down a dystopian rabbit hole.

Boston Dynamics told TechCrunch that it’s not at liberty to discuss the specifics of how the Massachusetts State Police deployed the robot, but the company’s Vice President Of Business Development Michael Perry explained that it’s put in place guidelines for how the loaner units can be used.

“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,” Perry said. “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.”

Perry explained that Boston Dynamics’ vision has the robots taking on a first responder role, rather than one of law enforcement. The latter seems to be the source of much of the concern here. It’s not so much the idea of the robots being implemented in a scenario with bomb deployment or hazardous material, so much as the potential to take a role in policing.

Notably, the ACLU’s request involves, “Documents, including emails, discussing, referencing, or pertaining to the weaponization of any robotics.”

Perry explains that the organization’s concerns are valid, but believes that Spot doesn’t represent a significant departure from existing technologies employed by first responders.

“It’s certainly the case that when a new technology is employed, multiple stakeholders need to come to the table,” he says. “I think the issues that the ACLU has raised specifically are applicable not just to our robots but to any new technology that is deployed. I’m not sure that what we bring to the table is significantly differentiated from anything that is already out there.”

NASA’s space pallet concept could land rovers on the moon cheaply and simply

Establishing an enduring presence on the Moon will mean making a lot of landings — and NASA researchers want to make those landings as reliable and cheap as possible. This robotic “pallet lander” concept would be a dead simple (as lunar landers go) way to put up to 300 kilograms of rover and payload onto the Moon’s surface.

Detailed in a technical paper published today, the lander is a sort of space pallet: a strong, basic framework that could be a unit in many a future mission. It’s still a concept and doesn’t really have a name, so space pallet will do for now.

It’s an evolution of a design that emerged in studies surrounding the VIPER mission that was intended to “minimized cost and schedule” and just get the rover to the surface safely. In a rare admission of (at least theoretically) putting cost over performance, the paper’s introduction reads:

The design of the lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirements where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’

It should be noted, of course, that “good enough” hardly implies a slapdash job in the context of lunar landers. It just means that getting 5 percent more tensile strength from a material that costs 50 times more wasn’t considered a worthwhile trade-off. Same reason we don’t use ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead they’re using the space travel equivalent of solid pine boards that have been tested into the ground. (The team does admit to extrapolating a little but emphasizes that this is first and foremost a realistic approach.)

The space pallet would go up aboard a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle would get the pallet and its rover payload into a trans-lunar injection trajectory, and a few days later the space pallet would perform the necessary landing maneuvers: attitude control, landing site selection, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun.

Once on the surface, the rover would go on its merry way at some point in the next couple hours. The lander would take a few surface images and characterize its surroundings for the team on Earth, then shut down permanently after 8 hours or so.

Yes, unfortunately the space pallet is not intended to survive the lunar night, the researchers point out. Though any presence on the moon’s surface is a powerful resource, it’s expensive to provide the kind of power and heating infrastructure that would let the lander live through the freezing, airless cold of the Moon’s weeks-long night.

Still, it’s possible that the craft could be equipped with some low-key, self-sustaining science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — a passive beacon for navigation, perhaps, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.

I’ve asked for a bit more information on the possibilities of science instruments onboard, and what the alternatives might be should the space pallet not be pursued further than concept stage. But even if that were to be the case, the team writes in the paper, “it is important to note that these and other derived technologies are extensible to other lander designs and missions.”