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    Robotic avatar may see commercialization soon

    Sarcos
    Elon may be talking about robots, but commercialization of next-gen robotic systems that will actually find a foothold in the real world is closer than many would have expected just a few years ago. Sarcos Robotics (“Sarcos”), a veteran in the robotics sector and an important bellwether, has just concluded real-world use cases of its upper-body avatar, the Guardian XT highly dexterous mobile robotic system.The Guardian XT is an upper-body variant of the company’s robotic exoskeleton, the Guardian XO full-body, battery-powered industrial exoskeleton. Exoskeleton technology has come along before, but the use cases have been predominantly medical. Commercial human strength augmentation — which many very rudimentary machines allow for in the hands of users but which still exists largely in the realm of sci fi when it comes to robotics — could transform industries such as construction and manufacturing.Sarcos has been working on these systems for years and is poised to become the first company to bring robotics to the job site for human augmentation. That’s a big deal because it could change how workers operate across several sectors. When forklifts and cranes are replaced by humans in exoskeleton suits or operating teleoperated robots, efficiencies will balloon.  For the recent field demonstrations, Sarcos worked with a leading electric utility construction services company. Demonstrated activities included successfully conducting at-height tree trimming operations around active powerlines to showcase the Guardian XT’s ability to reduce occurrences of powerline-related fatalities and injuries. Sarcos worked with sustainable materials science company to conduct nondestructive testing (NDT) and inspections of at-height, in-process pipes at a chemical plant with the goal of improving inspection efficiency and reducing potentially life-altering injuries. Finally, Sarcos teamed up with a multi-national oil and gas industry company to conduct field construction activities. “These first successful product demonstrations to potential customers utilizing the Guardian XT industrial robotic avatar system in the field are a major achievement for Sarcos as we prepare for commercialization by the end of next year,” said Ben Wolff, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sarcos. “We look forward to continuing the dialogue with these initial partners and obtaining their feedback in order to deliver best-in-class robotics solutions that increase productivity while eliminating the need for their employees to operate in dangerous environments.”This is all good news for industries that are prone to some of the highest workplace injury rates in the world. Overexertion and falls are among the most common workplace injuries, ranking third and fourth respectively according to the 2019 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. The increasing versatility of strength-multiplying robots suggests a future where man-machine hybrids work more efficiently and safer.Sarcos became a publicly listed company in April through a merger transaction with Rotor Acquisition Corp, a publicly-traded special purpose acquisition company. The Guardian XT, which is expected to be commercially available by the end of 2022 and will integrate Sarcos’ SenSuit wearable controller, is set to play a key role in the company’s growth plans. More

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    Trucking automation is here (but not as sexy as you think)

    Unfurl the banner, sound the bugle, pop the cork: Automation has arrived in commercial trucking! (Although like many hyped technologies, the reality is more nuanced — and less sexy — than the headlines suggest.) Outrider, which is making a name for itself bringing autonomy to yard operations for logistics hubs, is rolling out automated tractor-trailer hitching capabilities. It’s not a self-driving big rig, but this is actually a big deal, and it’s yet another great case of how automation actually is taking over a sector, albeit in incremental ways. Automation creeps, it doesn’t conquer.Trucking is a really interesting canary in the coal mine for automation. Trucks are the go-to mode of transport for much of the U.S. economy. In fact, over 10 billion tons of freight moves across the US each year. On its way to its destination, just about all of it makes a stop at distribution yards, where trailers are unhitched from trucks. “Nearly all the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the materials we use are transported by trucks and trailers,” said Andrew Smith, Founder and CEO of Outrider. “Outrider automates yard operations, helping enterprises improve the efficiency and safety of a critical step in their supply chains. Hitching and unhitching is an integral part of yard automation and the global trucking industry, occurring millions of times per day.”While strides are being made toward autonomous trucking, particularly on long haul routes that don’t require in-city maneuvering, a whole bunch of the day to day work of trucking actually takes place in yards, where actions are repetitive, work can be dangerous, and speed is critical. That makes yards a perfect use case for automation, and Outrider is smart to focus on this seam during the industry’s inevitably clunky transition beyond driver-enhancement and toward outright automation, a process that could decades still.The system relies on advanced perception, motion planning, and proprietary control algorithms to enable autonomous yard trucks to optimally align in front of semi-trailers, back under the trailer, and attach the fifth wheel (the connection point of the truck) to the kingpin (the connection point on the trailer) with extreme precision. The system can deliver millimeter level accuracy.”Most autonomous trucking companies are focused on moving trailers down long stretches of public roads. Outrider is focused on moving trailers in distribution yards, where autonomous hitching technology is critical to automating the entire operation,” added Smith. “There is an endless array of slight differences in trailer position and configuration when a truck connects to a trailer. Outrider’s engineers have built groundbreaking technology that adapts in real-time to hitch to trailers of diverse heights, weights, and orientations.”

    To date the company has raised an impressive $118M in funding. More

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    Forget autonomy: Here's how driving becomes safer

    Traffic accidents are a misnomer. In fact, over 95% of what happens on roadways is perfectly predictable. That’s according to Stefan Heck, PhD, CEO of Nauto, a leader in AI-powered advanced driver assistance systems. With a belief that fully autonomous driving is still years away, Heck’s answer to the mounting number of collisions and fatalities in 2020 is to help drivers, not replace them. To that end, Nauto’s technology underpins sophisticated safety systems for hundreds of the world’s top large-scale fleets and customers are achieving up to 80% reduction in collision loss. The company estimates that has translated into over $300 million in savings.So how can fleets operate safer and more predictably? And what does that mean for non-commercial drivers and pedestrians? I caught up with Heck, who shared interesting insights on the very human future of driving.GN: A lot of attention is paid to autonomous driving, but a fully-autonomous future is still years away. How does Nauto’s technology augment driver awareness and safety with AI?Stefan Heck: Nauto gets 90% of the safety for fleet and risk reduction benefit of autonomy today for 1/100th of the cost. AVs made rapid progress on the first 80% of driving – staying in lanes, avoiding other vehicles but the last set of conditions of AV driving are really hard – left turns, crowded urban areas, complex interactions with other road users. Nauto’s AI can also operate in any environment under any weather conditions, and any type of vehicle well beyond the range of conditions that AVs can drive in safety today. We basically provide a “co-pilot” for commercial drivers that never falls asleep or gets distracted, helps them get to their job site and home safely, and embodies the collective experience of billions of miles of understanding risk and safe behavior available to every driver at a moment’s notice.  GN: When it comes to commercial fleets, how do accidents tend to occur and how does your technology mitigate collisions?

    Stefan Heck: By far the biggest cause of collisions in commercial fleets (or in fact any vehicle) are distractions. We see about 70% of all collisions happen to drivers that are frequently distracted. Fleets with long distances or hours also see large numbers of collisions due to fatigue and drowsiness, often at the end of a long grueling day of physical labor – e.g installations, package delivery. Speeding gets a lot of attention but is actually mostly an amplifier of damage, not the primary cause of collisions. Similarly, many older commercial vehicle telematics technologies focus on reducing hard braking – but hard braking can be very safe behavior if you’re braking for a pedestrian or a car pulling out, and the biggest reason for hard braking is actually driver distraction. We detect the distraction which takes place seconds before the hard brake and the dangerous situation. Nauto can also detect imminent collisions when a driver is about to rear end a vehicle or strike a pedestrian or bicyclist. Accuracy and being able to operate at night are critical for these risks since many collisions take place in crowded urban environments and during lower visibility. Many other technology providers claims “forward collision warning” but don’t operate at night, or only within a narrow speed band (not too slow and not at highway speed), or can’t detect pedestrians. This is where the quality of the AI matters much more than many of the “check the box” knockoff cameras we see on the market that claim they can do something some of the time, under the perfect conditions. Collisions don’t happen in perfect conditions. You need AI and Nauto precisely when things get dicey. GN: How does the U.S. differ from Europe in its approach to transportation and regulation, and what are some areas where the country is falling behind or could improve?Stefan Heck: Europe overall has a collision rate and especially a fatality rate that is about 1/3 of the US (2-5 fatalities per 100,000 populations vs 12.4/100K population annually). So why is Europe better? There are many contributing factors: EU cars are designed to protect pedestrians more, and also do less damage since they are on average smaller and lighter, many EU cities provide more and separate space for pedestrians and bicyclists, especially in urban areas. Insurance costs are also substantially lower since many medical costs are covered by national health plans rather than motor insurance. Europe also adopts new safety standards faster – e.g. the EuroNCAP and safety regulations that require ALL new cars sold in 2024 onward to have pedestrian collision warning, distraction and drowsiness warnings – essentially capabilities like Nauto’s system in ALL new vehicles. Distraction is estimated to kill around 1,500 people per year in the US, but our own data shows it’s probably closer to half of the 40,000 fatalities a year in the US. Europe is tackling this problem directly. By contrast the US has focused on backup cameras which saved 58-68 lives per year, worth doing, but not our biggest safety problem.GN: Can you give us your predictions for what fleets will look like five to ten years from now? What technologies will be standard, how will the regulatory regime change, and will humans still be behind the wheel in most cases? Stefan Heck: In 5 years we won’t see massive changes. AVs will still be nascent – operating mainly in highly mapped, sunny, constrained routes or at low speeds. The installed base of vehicles on the road only turns over every 12-15 years, so while many ADAS (collision warning) and DMS (distraction and drowsiness alert) systems will become standard on new vehicles, the overall adoption grows gradually. This is likely to be very different in smart, safety conscious fleets who are already embarking on complete retrofits of AI powered safety technology today and pulling these savings and safety benefits forward by 5-10 years. In 10 years we will begin to see significant adoption of both EVs (electric vehicles) and AVs (semi autonomous or what is known as level 2/3 or fully autonomous known as level 4/5) will become much more common. But AV adoption will not be evenly spread. First, they will remain expensive so they remain a luxury item. Even for commercial fleets, some segments like long haul trucking on interstate highways lend themselves much more to autonomy. But even they may not be 100% driverless  – just like airlines today fly 95% of the flight on autopilot but the pilots often still land and take off by hand. What many people both on Wall Street and in the Tech industry miss is that many commercial vehicle segments are not likely to ever go AV because the driver is an essential part of the service provided. 80% of Nauto’s 700 fleets are in segments where the person in the vehicle is a core part of the service when the vehicle gets to the customer, for example a utility line person, an HVAC service technician, or pest control expert, or an electrician. Even for many delivery fleets the couriers and also the sales force, customer service, and a crucial part of the customer experience. Imagine UPS without “brown” – the friendly person who smiles, replaced by an insect noisy drone dropping off the package on your doorstep. Amazon has backed away from many of its drone delivery claims as it realized that humans do many more things for delivery than just carry a package. If the technician or courier is going to be in the vehicle, the fleet will be paying their salary so the labor and time savings of an AV over an AI safety solution available today is negligible.  More

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    Electric exploration submarine vies to be SpaceX of sea

    Bedrock
    What do you get when a SpaceX alum and submarine engineer cofounds a tech company? A submersible that can boldly go where no one has gone before.You’re going to hear a lot more about ocean mapping in the coming years. Driven in part by the UN’s Seabed 2030 program, which seeks to map the entire ocean within the decade, and partially by growing interest in offshore and near-shore sustainable energy infrastructure, it’s a great age of ocean exploration.Much of that work will be done by drones. The latest example, from a company called Bedrock, is a fully electric autonomous submarine and vertically-integrated seafloor data platform and service. The autonomous underwater vehicle combined with Mosaic, a universal survey cloud-based, data platform is designed for managing, accessing, and sharing marine survey data — from any ongoing or historical survey — which is now open for beta signups.”The ocean is a key environment we need to deeply understand to save the planet from climate change and provide sustainable, renewable energy,” said Anthony DiMare, co-founder and CEO of Bedrock. “But right now, we simply don’t have the ability to act quickly because we lack simple, easy access to critical data on how the ocean works, starting with the seafloor. Bedrock’s vertically-integrated seafloor data platform enabled by our proprietary AUV’s, coupled with Mosaic, is the technology needed for this new function shift to change the way we work with our oceans.”The company was founded by Anthony DiMare and former SpaceX and submarine engineer Charles Chiau. Beyond the scientific merits of the endeavor, there’s a large emerging market case for a mapping submarine. Offshore wind generation requires careful understanding of the surrounding sea floor, and drones are fast emerging as key tools for wind energy development as well as infrastructure maintenance.According to Bedrock, it currently takes up to 12 months per survey to provide customers with usable commercial seafloor data. Bedrock’s submersible and data platform will provide survey status and data up to 10 times faster than the current solution. “In order to understand the state of the ocean, we need a baseline set of measurable metrics. Bedrock collects the needed data to drive proactive actions in areas of strategic impact for progress and prevention, rather than just being reactive” said Charlie Chiau, CTO and co-founder of Bedrock. “Our platform’s first and immediate application is to accelerate offshore renewable energy projects, which now need this ability for faster and repeatable discovery and monitoring of seafloor health and status.”

    A huge driver of acceleration in seabed mapping is the reduced need for large support ships, which manned submersibles and older technology require. Underwater drones, by contrast, can be deployed from small support ships and in many cases can be left to do their missions without much direct oversight, surfacing only when they need to be recovered.The miniaturization of technology and the increasing use of automation is heralding a new era of sea exploration.  More

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    Knee replacement robot does custom implants

    Personalized medicine is transforming treatment, but joint replacement is still a largely off-the-shelf affair. A startup combining artificial intelligence, robotics, and 3D printing wants to change that, and it’s targeting a big crowdsourced Series B to make it happen. Monogram Orthopedics is targeting a $34M raise to scale and bring their technology to the $19.6B joint replacement market. The company has raised over $20M and is currently in the middle of an active series-B round, which is being crowdfunded via StartEngine.”We are poised to do what no other company has done in the total joint arthroplasty market before,” says Dr. Doug Unis, a board certified orthopaedic surgeon co-founder and chief medical officer, Monogram Orthopedics and Chief of Quality Improvement at Mount Sinai West, “harness technology to build truly personalized implants that fully tap into the power of intelligent robotics.”The quest to personalize the joint replacement market could have a huge payoff if a company can grab market share. More than 1 million knee replacement surgeries are done a year in the United States alone, a figure that is expected to grow to 3.5 million by 2030. But the experience of having a joint replaced, as anyone who has undergone the surgery is aware, is difficult and often excruciating, and results are by no means guaranteed. There are around 100,000 hip and knee replacement failures every year and 36 percent of patients regretting their procedure altogether.Monogram is betting a personalized approach could help. “Thanks to significant improvements in robotics, innovative new manufacturing techniques like 3D printing of medical grade titanium alloys and new machine learning (AI) image processing techniques, opportunities to exploit technology and significantly improve patient quality of life are emerging,” according to a press statement. “Monogram aims to disrupt the ‘one-size fits none’ model by offering patients an enhanced individualized fit, well suited for each patient’s individual needs.”Monogram is developing a robotic platform paired with personalized implants. Its active milling navigated robot arm paired with 3D-printed, patient-optimized implants could provide improved surgical care for joint replacement patients. Early research seems to back the claim. The company says a procedure performed benchmarking against a competitor’s technology, which is one of the most clinically and commercially successful knees on the market, showed the competitive product had up to 630% more micromotion than the Monogram implant placed with their surgical robot. That research was performed at a laboratory at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

    Investors seem to be backing the concept. Riding the growing crowdfunding wave, Monogram is targeting $34 million in funding in its current Series B.The company is headquartered in Austin, Texas. More

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    Robots head to college in fall

    Starship Technologies
    If you (or a family member) is heading to college this fall, you should brace for something unexpected. Robots are coming to college campuses and often to dorm rooms as on-campus delivery takes off.A leader in the space has been Starship Technologies, which is adding four additional college campuses to its delivery portfolio: University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), University of Kentucky (UK), University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, FL campus. The company will have a global fleet of over 1000 robots, and it has been shrewd in exploiting relationships with institutions that side-step civic regulatory regimes.The service has already started with an initial set of merchants and hours at UNR and Embry-Riddle and will be fully operational when students return for classes. Service will begin at the University of Kentucky on August 16 and become fully operational when classes begin a week later. Service is expected to begin at UIC this fall.”We’re excited to welcome such a diverse and exciting roster of schools to our service,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies. “We’ve worked hard to become a trusted and integrated partner on our campus communities, and that hard work has paid off. We are continuing to add new schools every semester, with more to be announced this fall. The students love the robots, and the schools appreciate the ability to offer this service. We can’t wait to meet the students at each of these schools and look forward to hiring students on all of the campuses to give them real-world experience working with robots and AI.”Starship broke ground on the coed circuit with George Mason University in Virginia in January 2019. The popularity has increased, with Starship’s service now available across nearly 20 different campuses in 15 states. Starship has also adopted a keen advisory role, helping ensure laws are in place for the safe operation of personal delivery devices. Robots may now perform deliveries in more than 50% of US states. “We see the Starship robots as an important part of safely bringing students back to campus,” said Dean Kennedy, executive director of Residential Life, Housing and Food Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Everyone wants to resume in-person classes and be back on campus, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s done responsibly. The robots offer several advantages — they make social distancing easier, they are convenient, the students we have spoken with love this idea, and they continue our heritage of being an innovative campus.”  More

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    Ground and aerial robots heading to construction site

    DroneDeploy
    For anyone who doubts automation is coming to the construction site, another piece of evidence: a leading enterprise drone data company has just acquired a robotics software company in a bid to help customers orchestrate aerial and ground robots in industries like energy, agriculture, and construction.The announcement from DroneDeploy, which will acquire New Zealand-based Rocos, is part of a larger pattern of automation, AI, and computer vision technologies converging in construction, a pervasive global industry that hasn’t had a major technology reboot in a very long time.The reason for the rush to make human construction workers stronger, faster, and smarter and to leverage automation toward greater efficiency is related to the disquieting fact that productivity in construction has actually fallen in half since the 1960s. The sector has not kept pace with innovation. As I’ve written, the diesel-powered hydraulic machines you’ll find on most construction sites today remain essentially unchanged from those rolling around 100 years ago. As a result, there are massive inefficiencies in the industry. According to KPMG’s Global Construction Survey, just 25% of projects came within 10% of their original deadlines. When it comes to megaprojects, like large infrastructure projects, McKinsey found that 98% are delayed or over budget. 77% are more than 40% behind schedule. DroneDeploy, which helps construction managers create digital twins of job sites, is eager to expand its footprint during what feels like a development arms race around the sector.”Companies are undergoing a digital transformation accelerated by challenges surrounding labor shortages and COVID-driven remote operations. As a result, the market demand for automatic site documentation and digital twins has soared,” said Mike Winn, CEO and co-founder of DroneDeploy. “With the Rocos acquisition, we are enabling our customers to automate ground-level data capture, moving several steps closer to a complete automation solution.”DroneDeploy, which powers the world’s largest companies to capture an instant understanding of their assets and operations through aerial imagery, is keen to expand its reach to on-the-ground robots. The Rocos acquisition will allow customers to establish automated routines within the platform from both the air and the ground, representing a new technologically enabled reality for the job site. 

    “A few years ago, drones made the leap from hobbyist toys to enterprise tools. Now, ground robotics is on a similar trajectory,” said David Inggs, former CEO and co-founder of Rocos, now DroneDeploy’s Head of Ground Robotics. “With the addition of Rocos’ ground robotics technology, DroneDeploy can now automate critical data workflows across both air and ground use cases, enabling greater safety and efficiency for the whole worksite.” More

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    3D capture for construction is like SimCity (but for real)

    Buildots
    Last year we floated the idea of moving construction workers (or at least a portion of on-site workers) to remote work arrangements. On the heels of recent announcements, competing firms Buildots and OpenSpace are pushing that scenario closer to reality with their 360° video capture solutions for construction. Construction accounts for 13% of the world’s GDP, but while other traditional industries, like manufacturing, have increased productivity over the years, productivity has remained almost stagnant in the building sector. According to the European Commission, construction productivity has only increased by 1% in the past two decades. And with operational profitability often being only 5%, there is little room for error. That’s one reason development dollars are pouring into the space. Automated documentation platforms, which stitch together captured images in a digital replica of physical spaces, are fast becoming key tools for inspection and project management, including in construction. The idea is that construction workers snap a small camera to their hardhat before walking the site. The images are organized and stitched together in the cloud, creating a living model of a job’s progress.Buildots, an AI construction tech company, recently announced a $30 million Series B round led by Lightspeed Ventures with the participation of previous investors. Buildots’ AI algorithms automatically validate images captured by hardhat-mounted 360° cameras, detecting gaps between the original design, scheduling, and the construction site’s reality.In what might read as something of a counterpunch, OpenSpace, which makes a similar platform, recently released OpenSpace Basic to qualified builders for free.”Over the past year, we’ve heard from builders that they wanted to have more access to the automated convenience of our standard video site capture product, which inspired us to create OpenSpace Basic,” says Jeevan Kalanithi, CEO and co-founder of OpenSpace. “OpenSpace Basic is a big jump forward from our earlier free products. We firmly believe that automated site documentation will be as ubiquitous on construction sites as a nail gun or ladder, so we want to make our platform available to as many builders as possible today.”The free debut of the technology tracks a larger trend of digitization on the job site.

    “Even prior to the current pandemic,” Kalanithi told us last year, “we were beginning to see wider adoption of digital tools on job sites, including those that enable remote work, like photo documentation. The situation we’re in now will likely lead to an acceleration in the adoption of these types of technologies, but this is the direction that the industry was heading in regardless.”Similar technologies have made their way into the construction industry from firms like HoloBuilder, Matterport, and Drone Deploy, part of a wave of 3D mapping firms that are applying the technology to an array of industries and sectors.”When it comes to digital transformation, construction has been a sleeping giant and COVID-19 served as an accelerator for the industry,” said Roy Danon, co-founder and CEO of Buildots. “We are now working with construction companies in over a dozen countries, and what we’re seeing is that the challenges Buildots is addressing are ubiquitous around the world. A global expansion at the rate we’ve experienced would have ordinarily been impossible in an industry like construction that has its roots in handshake deals and in-person relationships without the new covid reality of remote meetings and even deal signings.”  More