Robot Investments Weekly: AI and Drone Deals Exceed $700M
January 20, 2018      

Robot Investments Weekly recaps the past week’s transactions across the global robotics industry. For more information, Robotics Business Review subscribers can access our Transactions Database to stay up to date on the key mergers and acquisitions, investments, public offerings, and government funding developments. Search, sort, and print by transaction type, date, or industry.

This week, we look at multiple drone deals, Canadian support of manufacturing and Japanese funding for AI, and educational and social robots.

ARE acquires AirShark for drone inspection

American Rail Engineers Corp. (ARE) has purchased Media Wing LLC, which does business as AirShark. Irvine, Calif.-based ARE provides engineering, software development, and bridge-inspection services.

Hampton, N.H.-based Media Wing offers video production and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) services. It acquired mapping and UAV data processing firm AirShark in 2016.

ARE said it is an industry leader in rail engineering and bridge inspection for private railroads and public transportation authorities.

Canada invests in auto parts maker Linamar

The Canadian federal government this past week announced a grant of $49 million, and the government of Ontario promised a conditional grant of $50 million to Linamar Corp. The Guelph, Ontario-based company manufactures powertrain systems for vehicles.

The grants are intended to promote the construction of electric and connected vehicles in Canada as part of a larger $1.2 billion innovation effort. Linamar said the funds will go toward hiring 1,500 people and an innovation center focusing on artificial intelligence and collaborative robots.

Seiko Epson consolidates American units

Japan-based Seiko Epson Corp. said that its Epson Electronics America Inc. (EEA) and Epson America Inc. (EAI) units will merge. The EAI micro devices operation will continue and will be based in San Jose, Calif.

EAI has been responsible for developing Seiko’s quartz watches, LCDs, motors, and magnets. EEA was the regional headquarters for its electronic device and component business in the Western Hemisphere.

Epson plans to increase its business-to-business activity and makes industrial robots through its Epson Robots unit.

British Robotics Seed Fund supports Magpie Education

Magpie Education, which is developing a cost-effective robotics tool for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, obtained seed funding from the British Robotics Seed Fund. No amount was specified.

“We have piloted our tool in a number of schools in the U.K. and have identified a strong requirement to ensure our children receive good quality STEM teaching,” said Laurence Ellis, CEO of Magpie Education. “Through automated assessment and progress monitoring, we are using AI to a high level, with the platform predicting and recommending learning pathways for individual students with personalized content based on their progress.”

“The British robotics scene is diverse, and this [educational technology] startup is looking to shape the future of STEM teaching with a tool based on artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Dominic Keen, CEO of Britbots. “With its help, we should see the U.K.’s pool of scientists, engineers, and technologists grow as we compete to develop emerging technologies.”

Self-driving startup Pony.ai saddles up with $112M

Pony.ai, which has headquarters in Fremont, Calif., and Guangzhou, China, closed on Series A funding of $112 million led by Morningside Venture Capital and Legend Capital.

The autonomous vehicle company was co-founded by James Peng, former chief architect at Baidu, and Tiancheng Lou, who worked at Google X (now Waymo) and Baidu.

The company is just a year old, but it is already testing self-driving cars in California and China. Pony.ai is working toward Level 4 autonomy, in which it said “vehicles can perform all driving functions for an entire trip in both suburban and urban environments, as well as inclement weather conditions.”

“Pony.ai is one of the very few companies we’ve seen that possesses the critical success factors: a team with a proven track record and extremely well-rounded technical expertise from both research and industry backgrounds,” said Wenji Jin, managing director of Legend Capital. “From product definition and systems integration to artificial intelligence, Pony.ai is the leader in this nascent industry. I believe Pony.ai holds the most promise in delivering L4 technology to the mass market.”

“Pony.ai has the best autonomous driving engineering team in China, which helps it to obtain a leading position in new business model exploration,” said Young Guo, a partner at IDG Capital, another participant in the funding.

Tethered drone supplier Elistair gets a $2.45M lift

France-based Elistair, which makes tethered drones for aerial surveillance and temporary telecommunications, raised 2 million euros ($2.45 million U.S.) from Starquest Capital and previous investors.

Elistair has received support from the French Defense Procurement Agency and the EU’s Horizon 2020 program. The company has customers in Europe, North America, and Asia, and it serves law enforcement and civilian applications. Customers include Thales, the U.S. Army, Vodafone, and Nokia.

“Larger players in the industry have put their trust in this fast-growing start-up in such demanding sectors as defense or telecommunications,” said Julien Le Drogo, director of investment at Starquest. “Those fruitful agreements, which are a guarantee of quality and seriousness, offer Elistair great opportunities for the future, as with the launching of its new Drone box in 2018, able to take off, fly, and land a drone in a totally autonomous way, with no human intervention.”

Elistair plans to use its funding to build its research and development and commercial teams and to expand its global marketing presence.

Iris Automation raises Series A for autonomous drone transport

In another drone deal, Iris Automation Inc., which provides collision avoidance for commercial drones, announced a Series A round of $8 million led by Bessemer Venture Partners. The company has offices in San Francisco and Reno, Nev.

Iris Automation combines AI, computer vision, and sensor fusion for UAVs and air taxis. It said its system, which weighs less than 300g (10.5 oz.), “consists of a sophisticated embedded computing platform combined with a high-resolution, vision-based sensing package allowing for the detection of moving objects such as Cessna airplanes at ranges of 1500ft (or 500m).”

“Once detected, proprietary machine-learning algorithms are able to identify intruders before a sophisticated logic core autonomously maneuvers drones or other flying robots safely away from collision trajectories,” Iris Automation stated.

The company plans to use its funding to hire engineers and scaling its technology for the White House UAS Integration Pilot Projects.

Rokid extends Series B of more than $50M

Rokid robotsRokid Corp., which make the Pebble and Alien AI-powered smart home devices, extended its Series B round of fundraising with Temasek Holdings. Other investors included CDIB Capital, IDG Capital, and Credit Suisse.

China-based Rokid’s Series B began in 2016, but the company said its latest funding is part of the same round because voice recognition technology is still relatively new.

Rokid also hopes to expand into the U.S. market.

Court orders seizure of Prioria Robotics assets

Not all of the latest developments have been successes, however. In December, a jury found in favor of Condor Aerial, which had filed a breach-of-contract suit of $1.3 million against Prioria Robotics.

The Florida companies were selling drones to the law enforcement market. Condor Aerial said it sent a damaged UAV to Prioria, which didn’t return it.

The Gainesville Sun reported Friday that authorities seized assets from Prioria Robotics’ offices and that the city of Gainesville, Fla., is considering suing the company for unpaid rent.

Japan’s SBI launches $451M AI fund

SBI Investment has created the SBI AI & Blockchain Fund to invest in artificial intelligence and blockchain startups. SBI Investment is a venture capital arm of Japan-based SBI Holdings Inc.

The fund will have a term of about 10 years and will extend beyond financial technology to related technologies including robotics and the Internet of Things.

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