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    Giant 180-ton robot trucks are mining gold

    SafeAI
    A mining outfit in Australia is making a big bet on big robots. Following a recent proof of concept at a gold mine, mining contractor MACA will retrofit a fleet of 100 very large vehicles to create one of the largest autonomous heavy equipment fleets in the world.This is a pretty significant rollout and a proverbial canary in the gold mine for the sector’s broader automation ambitions. With the world hungrier than ever for precious and rare earth metals, technology is increasingly called on to make mining operations more efficient and cost-effective while unlocking increasingly scarce resources.

    Powering the new rollout is autonomous heavy equipment company SafeAI and its Australian partner, Position Partners. This new generation of autonomous heavy vehicle technology is a major upgrade from the first generation retrofits, which had limited onboard processing power and took a long time to see ROI in most cases. Early versions of autonomous vehicle technology in the sector also operated with closed legacy systems, preventing mixed fleets from communicating. Industries like mining have had this tech for 20 years now, but the lack of accessibility means it hasn’t really taken off yet.Autonomy 2.0 is changing that. AI-powered and armed with multimodal sensors (lidar, radar, camera), these new systems have significant onboard processing power to reduce network reliance and enable fast decisions. It’s also open, interoperable, and vehicle-agnostic — meaning tech like SafeAI’s retrofit autonomy can be applied to any vehicle, at pretty much any age from any manufacturer.”This technology is a game changer for our business, our customers and our industry,” explains Shane Clark, MACA’s General Manager of Estimating and Technical Services. “SafeAI’s versatile, scalable solution is unmatched in our industry right now, and has profound implications for site safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. We expect to see quick takeup from our customers as they begin to see the tremendous impact of this technology.” This means much greater scalability — like this 100 truck agreement — to accelerate the rollout of autonomous equipment for industries that are ready. One big benefit of autonomy is that it creates far safer working conditions for on-site workers.Of course, it also means that extractive industries like mining are becoming increasingly efficient. As personal computing and battery technologies increasingly drive demand for mined resources, automation technologies are propelling those industries to ever greater capabilities, a cycle that warrants increasing vigilance. More

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    Digital radar on a chip speeds autonomous vehicle adoption

    Uhnder radar-on-a-chip
    Uhnder
    A new radar-on-a-chip is on the way this year, capable of mass production and 4D digital imaging, heralding a new chapter for autonomous vehicles and next-gen advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Uhnder, a firm based in Austin, Texas, expects its digital radar to be automotive qualified in April 2022 and will debut on consumer production vehicles later this year.Radar was late to the game in autonomous vehicles, early developers of which preferred lidar and visual camera sensing suites. But radar has distinct advantages. For one, it’s a fantastic sensor for collision avoidance, particularly when used in concert with other sensing modalities. One disadvantage, however, has been its weight and form factor.Uhnder believes it has solved this with its radar-on-a-chip solution, a compelling example of how ADAS and autonomous vehicle development is helping drive evolution in sensing. “Uhnder’s 4D digital imaging radar-on-chip is a next-generation product that demonstrates new ways to advance automotive safety to save lives,” said Douglas Campbell, president of the Automotive Safety Council. “Fatalities of vulnerable road users are now 20 percent of all roadway deaths in the US and even more in developing countries. ADAS technologies, such as pedestrian automatic emergency braking (P-AEB) that can reliably operate at night, can help reduce pedestrian fatalities per the latest report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Improved high-resolution perception sensors, such as Uhnder’s radar-on-chip can potentially help reduce this rising fatality category.”Other firms have pursued radar-on-a-chip development, including Imec, one of the big players in commercial radar. In 2020 Imec presented a chip that processes radar signals using a recurrent spiking neural network. Its compact size made it easily deployable in drones and autonomous mobile robots, applications where size and weight are determinant factors for sensing systems.Uhnder is taking square aim at the vehicle space and claims its technology delivers the industry’s first digital radar solution with better accuracy and the power to sense moving or standing objects, large or small, at both short and long distances in all weather and lighting conditions, all while mitigating mutual interference between other radars, a big concern with analog radar. “Digital radar provides 16 times better resolution, 24 times more power on target, and 30 times better contrast than today’s analog offerings, improving detection capabilities for better road safety for all users – drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians,” said Manju Hegde, CEO and cofounder of Uhnder, Inc. “As more and more radars are fitted onto vehicles and other mobility solutions, interference among adjacent radar becomes problematic. Our radar, based on Digital Code Modulation, mitigates this problem.”The first tier 1 automotive customer for the 4D digital radar chip will be Magna, and Uhnder hopes to expand its customer base quickly.”I am excited with the progress made over the years and ready for the entire ecosystem to experience what we already know to be true – that digital radar is fundamental for next-generation ADAS,” said Swamy Kotagiri, CEO, Magna International. More

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    Robot fry cook gets job at 100 White Castle locations

    White Castle
    White Castle seems to be all-in on its latest employee, a robotic fry cook. Flippy 2, the fast-food robot by Miso Robotics, will now be whipping up burgers and other food in 100 standalone locations.

    The news is part of a larger shift underway in the quick-serve sector, driven in part by the demand for contactless service and in part by a tight labor market and rising wages toward automation. Just this week, in a similar move, Jamba announced it was strengthening its collaboration with Blendid, which makes a juice robot.White Castle first trialed Miso’s original Flippy robot in a Chicago-area location in 2020. The burger chain, which bills itself as the first hamburger fast-food chain in-country (it was founded in 1921), then rolled out a version of Flippy, Robot-on-a-Rail (ROAR), to an additional 10 kitchens.”Artificial intelligence and automation have been an area White Castle has wanted to experiment with to optimize our operations and provide a better work environment for our team members,” said Lisa Ingram, CEO of White Castle, at the time. “We believe technology like Flippy ROAR can improve customer service and kitchen operation. This pilot is putting us on that path — and we couldn’t be more pleased to continue our work with Miso Robotics and pave the way for greater adoption of cutting-edge technology in the fast-food industry.”Also: Sam’s Club betting its cleaning robots can do double dutyThe sales pitch by Miso is that its robot can alleviate inefficiencies in the back of house while ensuring consistent quality. Given the scope of the rollout, White Castle clearly deems the ROI equation valid.”We could not be more grateful for the confidence White Castle has shown in us as we enter into the next phase of our partnership,” said Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics. “White Castle was the first large brand to embrace our technology,  and we are thrilled that our Flippy pilot made such a positive impact on their operations that they want to integrate 100 more. We can’t wait to continue on this journey with such an outstanding partner.”         

    Miso’s journey, which we’ve covered since the company came out of stealth, has been fun to watch. The company did a non-traditional crowdfunding campaign and is primarily funded by individual investors. It boasts over 15,000 shareholders and a whopping  $50M in crowdfunding to date. Its E round gives it a market valuation of $500 million. More

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    Smoothie bots to take over Jamba locations

    Blendid
    Robots are coming to the quick serve space, and it’s been fascinating to track the progression across various food offerings. In the latest iteration, smoothie purveyor Jamba is expanding its partnership with food automation firm Blendid on additional robotic smoothie kiosks.Last year I spoke with the co-founder of Blendid, Vipin Jain, about the moment contactless service is having since the onset of the pandemic and the business proposition a company like Blendid can offer potential partners.”From the operator’s perspective, the benefits of deploying autonomous robotic kiosks such as Blendid are all tightly tied to supporting their business,” said Jain. “Automated robotic food platforms provide cost-effective and efficient fresh food options, opening the door for 24/7 operation with very minimal downtime to quickly restock fresh ingredients. The ability to offer fresh food in areas where it may not make operational sense otherwise, due to a small footprint or low traffic, opens new revenue streams. In fact, we’ve provided businesses (operators) with a very attractive unit economics – with cash-on-cash return of less than 18 months … almost unheard of in the food service industry!”Jamba, which along with Walmart is one of Blendid’s early partners, certainly seems to be seeing the business case. The partnership is expanding to introduce new kiosks on college campuses, part of an interesting trend industry-wide of using colleges as automation testbeds.”Since the beginning, we have wanted to test the Jamba by Blendid kiosks on college campuses. We know there is increasing demand for more ways to access our products and by introducing our robotic kiosks at colleges and universities across the country, we are making it even easier for consumers to enjoy smoothies 24/7,” said Geoff Henry, president of Jamba. “It has been rewarding to see guests engage enthusiastically with our kiosks, and we are looking forward to speaking with future operators who are interested in testing with us and learning more about the opportunity.” The food robotics market, estimated at $1.9 billion in 2020, is expected to reach $4.0 billion by 2026. Advances in robotics and AI, coupled with operational cost advantages and major consumer and retailer shifts, are driving the food industry to more rapidly embrace automation. A tight labor market and well-publicized worker shortages among restaurant employers are also hastening the shift. “Automated food solutions were growing before the pandemic,” Jain told me, “but the COVID-19 crisis poured gasoline on the fire. Business continuity became a challenge for many food service and retail companies. Suddenly businesses had to figure out how to offer food safely in a contactless manner and cost effectively. The pandemic has pushed up the timeline considerably. Based on the exponentially growing interest Blendid is receiving from prospective operators worldwide, mounting staffing challenges, and robotics cost reductions, I expect food robots to be pervasive within 5 years. What used to be forward-thinking has become the current-thinking. This is the new “normal” for food service.”

    All to say, these shifts are the beginning of a much larger change afoot. Expect to see robots behind the counter sooner than expected. More

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    How cell tower 'COW' drones will keep fans safe at the Super Bowl

    FirstNet flying COW
    FirstNet
    For fans in Los Angeles, host to this year’s Big Game, the Super Bowl is a chance to tailgate and celebrate. For first responders in the LA region, it’s a massive public safety event that’s a year in the making.One of the big concerns is network strain. AT&T is answering the call for help with a number of technologies, including the “flying COW,” essentially drones that double as cell towers.Also: How to watch the Super Bowl: All of your streaming optionsThe problem is acute. LA’s SoFi stadium has 10X the capacity versus the Super Bowl’s venue in 2020, and there’s a long legacy of network disruptions during large events. That can lead to significant safety concerns. One striking example is the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. So many bystanders were using their cell phones that the high call volume saturated the local cellular networks, causing signal delays and failed calls that rendered mobile phones nearly useless. For area first responders on duty that day, the consequences of poor network coverage and capacity was dire — the lack of a reliable network delayed the ability to share the images and videos that ultimately helped to identify the alleged perpetrators.

    [embedded content]

    AT&T has been busy mobilizing around SoFi Stadium. Thanks to the provider’s public-private-partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) — an independent agency within the federal government — AT&T is also delivering 5G to first responders in Los Angeles. FirstNet has been committed to revamping public safety for massive events and also during disaster recovery. The three Flying COWs (which stands for “cellular on wings”) in the FirstNet fleet comprise two tethered drones and a trailer for transport that is equipped with a satellite dish and fiber connections. Southern California is a fair weather place, but the drones are capable of withstanding light rain and wind speeds up to 25 miles per hour — while reaching heights of up to 400 feet. Outfitted with Band 14, AT&T can use the COWs to help equip FirstNet subscribers in the US with connectivity during high-usage events. 

    For the Super Bowl, FirstNet will also deploy a Communications Vehicle, a therapy dog to help with first responders’ mental health during stressful situations, one FirstNet Micro SatCOLT (Satellite Cell on Light Truck), six ground COWs (Cell on Wheels) with Band 14 spectrum antennas for FirstNet, and thousands of feet of fiber in and around the stadium.AT&T has been moving aggressively in Los Angeles. From 2018 to 2020, it expanded coverage and improved connectivity by investing nearly $2.7 billion in wireless and wireline networks in the greater Los Angeles area. More

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    With lead in China, RoboTaxi maker turns sights on U.S.

    AutoX expands RoboTaxi empire to San Francisco.
    AutoX
    If the race for autonomous vehicles is measured in absolute numbers, a company that’s been surprisingly successful navigating real-world rollouts in both China and the U.S. is winning. AutoX now counts more than 1,000 of Level 4 autonomous RoboTaxis in operation in China, and it’s been a surprise front runner in U.S. L4 testbeds as well.

    Electric Vehicles

    The thousand fleet milestone comes as AutoX is riding a wave of recent announcements. In July 2021, AutoX’s newest Gen5 system-equipped RoboTaxis started rolling off the production line. More recently, in January 2022, AutoX shared an inside look at its end-of-line, Level 4 fully driverless RoboTaxis dedicated production facility located near Shanghai, China, with a video. Since starting production, the RoboTaxi assembly line has been in full operation. Back 2020, capitalizing on a COVID-19 pandemic-induced emphasis on contactless services, the company made headlines with a dual-country approach to autonomy testing and market rollout, essentially cornering the RoboTaxi market in Shanghai while also winning a coveted permit to test its driverless cars without drivers in California, becoming just the third company to be awarded the permit. The rapid rise is all the more impressive, given that it seemed to get a late start in the driverless race. AutoX Founder and CEO Jianxiong Xiao, who was the founding director of Princeton’s Computer Vision and Robotics Labs before leaving the school in 2016 to found AutoX, started his company with modest seed funding after moving his family from Princeton, NJ, to Silicon Valley in 2016. His value proposition was that inexpensive cameras paired with the right AI would be enough for safe L4 autonomous driving. Unlike competitors, his company operated in stealth until very recently, although a California DMV filing to test self-driving vehicles put him on insiders’ radar early on. Behind the scenes, Jianxiong’s computer vision bona fides (he’s an all-star in the field) have helped him attract major academic talent.Using inexpensive sensors, Jianxiong says he is on a mission to democratize autonomy via cutting edge AI. The notion of democratizing autonomous driving is embedded deep in AutoX’s DNA. It’s a rare bootstrapped company in an ecosystem dominated by the likes of Uber, Intel, and Google. With ample presence in China, AutoX is redoubling its U.S. efforts. The company has launched a new RoboTaxi operations center in San Francisco, representing a unique road challenge for autonomous vehicles and in one of the densest urban centers in the U.S. “We want to deploy the AutoX RoboTaxi fleet in many cities to serve hundreds of millions of people, as well to improve and become a part of communities around the world. Cities such as San Francisco, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing are the launchpads for RoboTaxis to transform people’s daily lives. And that’s just the beginning,” says Jianxiong.  More

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    Gas stations are losing (Here's a novel way they'll adapt)

    Abandoned gas station.
    Pixabay
    Gas station visits have been steadily declining due to the rise in sustainable mobility options like electric and autonomous vehicles. At the same time, they occupy valuable urban real estate, and are set to derive an ever-increasing share of their revenue from convenience stores rather than fuel pumps. Can gas stations save themselves from redundancy by better utilizing their physical space and becoming ecommerce hubs?The rise of ecommerce has presented an opportunity for retailers to analyze consumer needs and tailor their offerings to maximize revenue. Stor.ai, a digital commerce solution for grocers, believes gas station owners can jump on this trend and move from a vehicle-centric model to a customer-centric one. Gas stations today are already repurposing their store space to enable shoppers to receive deliveries at their convenience.I reached out to Mendel Gniwisch, CEO of Stor.ai, to discuss how fuel retailers can reinvent the customer journey and use digital tools to extend the customer relationship beyond occasional visits to the service station.GN: Let’s start with basics. What is the Stor.ai concept, particularly its innovative utilization of space?Mendel Gniwisch: Stor.ai was founded in order to assist grocers with their digital transformation by combining digital customer engagement across all touchpoints into one platform. Previously, online grocery shopping had developed separately from the in-store experience, resulting in a fractured shopping experience characterized by disparate digital touchpoints. With most shoppers now combining in-store visits with some use of ecommerce, stor.ai leverages the latest in AI and personalization technology to help grocers retain their unique brand loyalty while meeting evolving customer expectations, online and in-store.Most retailers sign long-term leases on their stores, but when they signed those contracts 10 or 20 years ago few could have foreseen just how quickly ecommerce would skyrocket. Retailers are faced with a new reality of grocery stores serving both shoppers and pickers and a growing demand by customers for hyper-efficiency, speed and personalization. Stor.ai’s end-to-end digital transformation solution helps retailers use the space at their disposal as efficiently as possible. With the grocery industry’s future set to be defined by a fusion of in-store and online shopping, in-store real estate needs to be maximized to help retailers meet customers’ ever-increasing expectations for quick, friction-free fulfillment.

    Our picking-app allows for efficiency for the retailer, especially now with increasing labor shortages, while our platform ensure convenience and personalization for the consumer ensuring that the customer benefits at every touchpoint. GN: What are some of the obstacles gas stations are confronting amid changing driver behavior and new mobility technologies?Mendel Gniwisch: Gas station visits have been steadily declining due to the rise in sustainable mobility options like electric and autonomous vehicles. Simultaneously, due to the pandemic, fewer people are driving into work on an everyday basis.Fuel retailers are in a position where they need to rethink their strategies, build their capabilities, and transform their businesses to support these serious changes. Otherwise, the changing way in which fuel is consumed risks making gas stations redundant – which is especially threatening for their owners and franchisees given the value of the real estate they occupy. That’s why the gas stations of the future will be expected to offer an expanded range of flexible and needs-based shopping options in order to first survive and then thrive.GN: What does it mean to move from a vehicle-centric model to a customer-centric model? What’s the vision for gas stations under Stor.ai’s influence?Mendel Gniwisch: Moving from a vehicle-centric to customer-centric model entails reinventing the customer journey by using digital tools to extend the customer relationship beyond occasional visits to the gas station.By focusing on addressing the needs of customers, gas station owners can offer value even when drivers don’t need to fill up on fuel. The goal is to create a seamless, engaging customer experience that goes beyond the traditional service station offering.The rise of ecommerce is affecting all retail verticals, but the need to adapt is especially pressing for gas stations given that their traditional offering is predicted to become increasingly less relevant.As fuel becomes less critical, gas stations are left with two principal assets: their location (often prime real estate in or adjacent to cities), and their small on-site convenience stores. The gas station of the future will invest in developing new digital functions and new technology capabilities that fit into consumer trends to streamline the shopping experience. They can expand pre-existing offerings, build a click-and-collect infrastructure, or even place a dark store on site.From delivery on the go to the frictionless customer experience, fuel retailers concerned about the decline in fuel demand can find growth opportunities elsewhere by increasing operational efficiency from their real estate and refocusing their energies on convenience retail.GN: A lot of this is about empowering smaller retailers with tools that recently have been the exclusive domain of major brands. Where else are you seeing opportunities for mom & pops to redefine their role and operations?Mendel Gniwisch: Across the board retailers want to retain control of how they use customer data rather than farming it out to third parties, helping them tailor their products as best as possible to customers’ needs and prioritize consumer-first commerce. Third-party providers are ideal for a short-term fix to manage an instant digital transition, but this comes at a cost: The provider might initially drive traffic and revenues, but very soon, the customers could be the provider’s rather than your own. Instead, retailers are looking for independent solutions like stor.ai to help them build their own online presence, own their customer interactions and data, and offer shoppers a digital experience that reflects the unique characteristics of individual brands. GN: What’s next for Stor.ai? Where does the company expect to have its biggest wins in 2022?Mendel Gniwisch: Most customers now shop in a hybrid manner, meaning that they do some of their shopping through digital methods, and some of their shopping using traditional, pre-digital methods. Stor.ai is embracing this changing reality, and in 2022 we are devoting our efforts toward helping retailers combine the most impactful features of both online and offline shopping and offer the best of both worlds. Retailers will increasingly be expected to bring the efficiency and seamlessness of online shopping to the brick-and-mortar store while also bringing the experiential highs and unique in-store experience to the online realm.I see the optimal model for the store of the future as having a totally personalized experience, using the latest AI, AR and VR technologies to help customers enjoy the smells, sights and sounds that could at one point only be experienced in person. More

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    Sam's Club betting its cleaning robots can do double duty

    Sam’s club’s floor scrubbing robots.
    Brain Corp
    Sam’s Club will soon be asking robots to do double duty. The membership warehouse club is undergoing a national, chain-wide rollout of an inventory scanning feature that will be added to existing floor scrubbing robots.

    Innovation

    The move suggests an interesting new chapter for Walmart Inc, owner of Sam’s Club. One of the biggest robotics stories of the last few years came when Walmart killed a 500 store deployment of shelf-scanning robots developed by automation firm Bossa Nova, which marked the end of the technology’s highest-profile test case to date. In the wake of the cancelled contract, developers of inventory scanning robots scrambled to differentiate their technology and prove that the fate of one company’s contract meant little to the technology’s long-term prospects.The latest rollout by Sam’s Club, which marks a return to autonomous inventory scanning by a Walmart brand, supports that thesis. “Sam’s Club is hyper-focused on making sure our members have a seamless shopping experience, so any time-saving innovation we can implement is significant. By adding Inventory Scan to our current fleet of robotic scrubbers, we obtain critical inventory data that previously was time-consuming to obtain,” said Todd Garner, VP of In-Club Product Management at Sam’s Club. “This intelligence allows us to proactively manage our clubs in an efficient manner. Inventory Scan assures items are available and easy to locate in the club, freeing up time for our associates to focus on members and the shopping experience they deserve.”Also: Robotaxis get new learning strategies to face “the edge”This is a noteworthy deal for the robotics sector insofar as it’s a good illustration of what automation is going to look like “in the wild” in the coming years. Brain Corp, which has been quietly building an empire based around robotic scrubbing machines, isn’t glitzy by robotics development standards. However, the company’s AI-powered machines are massively popular amid ongoing labor shortages and pandemic-related shifts in how commercial spaces are utilized. While other companies are manufacturing standalone inventory scanning robots, Brain Corp has been building on its success over the past few years by diversifying the capabilities of its robots.The add-on scanning accessory will be fitted to the almost 600 autonomous floor scrubbers already deployed within Sam’s Club stores nationwide. These towers, powered by Brain Corp’s AI operating system, BrainOS, and manufactured by Tennant Company, will capture data as the robots move autonomously around the store. Reports are then delivered to the Sam’s Club managers and provide insights like verification of pricing accuracy, planogram compliance, product stock levels, and product localization. Each function negates the need for time-consuming and manual processes, reducing waste and inventory loss.  

    “This latest iteration of our valued and longstanding partnership with Sam’s Club marks the beginning of realizing the next phase in our company’s vision,” said Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, CEO of Brain Corp. “We are actively taking BrainOS-powered robots from primarily task-oriented machines to in-store data acquisition platforms, able to deliver actionable insights on inventory availability, planogram compliance and more. This adds significant ROI for retailers.”  More