Robotics is one of the rare fields that sit neatly in the slender overlap between practical and cool. Automation and related technologies are producing seismic shifts in the operational procedures of massive industries, and that’s a wonderful thing for many reasons — but there’s a profound pleasure to be derived from simply looking upon the wonders being achieved and acknowledging how fascinating this world is.
And when you’re looking for a fresh dose of inspirational innovation, you can’t do any better than glancing at outstanding startups. It isn’t easy to run a robotics startup these days, as many companies make some very basic mistakes, but there’s plenty of opportunity for those who know what they’re doing — such as those we’re about to look at.
So enough of the preamble. Let’s run through six robotics startups that are doing really cool things at the moment, picking out what exactly makes them so notable:
There’s so much yet to be learned from the oceans, but trawling them manually is a hellish task on account of their immense size and the sheer impracticality of being far from resupply routes. What the world needs is an automated solution to gather data effectively and efficiently, and that’s exactly what Saildrone is achieving.
Based in San Francisco, it designs and builds autonomous seafaring craft capable of collecting rich data regarding both atmospheric conditions and the movement of the oceans. They don’t move tremendously quickly, but they don’t need to — powered by both wind and solar energy, they can keep going near-indefinitely.
On aggregate, the Saildrone fleet is consistently working to build enormous datasets on everything from fishing activity to climate change updates, leasing its drones to governments and major organizations. I consider that fairly cool.
2: Dusty Robotics
One of the industries that stands to gain the most from robotic innovation is the construction industry. There are two big reasons for this: firstly, there’s a lot of money to be made from enhancing operational efficiency on costly building projects, and secondly, construction workers are typically at great risk of suffering injury and/or illness.
In 2018, roboticist Tessa Lau decided to kickstart some progress in this area by founding Dusty Robotics, a company dedicated to automating the most essential tasks on construction sites. Though it’s still in early development, it’s starting with an autonomous mobile robot that marks layout guides from set documents (software like the Autodesk 3D designer has already made CAD intuitive, so this draws from that process), making it easy to follow the right markings.
This is useful for safety in itself, because the lighter the average worker’s burden becomes, the more time and energy they’ll have to focus on carrying out dangerous tasks with maximum safety — but given the overall plans of the company, we can expect to see some interesting construction innovations down the line.
3: Badger Technologies
Automation has already transformed the retail world in major ways, stemming largely from the broad move to ecommerce. We’re increasingly seeing machine learning deployed throughout online retail, for instance, with tools like Shopify’s Flow automation platform using countless connectors to integrate disparate systems. When you can operate without physical premises, functioning almost-exclusively in the digital world, you can turn on a dime.
But what of brick-and-mortar retail, something that’s still thriving in some areas (e.g. for groceries)? What can automation bring to that world? Well, Badger Technologies was founded in 2017 to find out, and has since created an autonomous service robot called Marty.
Set up inside a store, Marty will move around the available space and generally monitor proceedings with the goal of ensuring safety and general compliance. It can detect fallen items and spills, helping human employees stay on top of them, gauge stock, and check pricing. Having been rolled out extensively in 2019 after a successful trial phase, don’t be surprised if you spot one in a store near you.
Finding ways to get young people into robotics and STEM fields in general is extremely important, because the future is going to need qualified workers — particularly in the AI field, because that industry is destined to be enormous. Makeblock was formed to provide a wide range of educational robotics kits, designed to be easily accessible.
For instance, there’s the Airblock, a configurable flight-capable robot that can be assembled into numerous shapes. With just one kit, children can experiment with creating different types of drone, including a standard hovercraft and a propeller-driven ground vehicle. The range of modules is quite substantial, so whatever type of drone you want to provide, you can source it.
What makes Makeblock so cool is that it’s exactly what young people need to get them into robotics: the freedom to play with their own arrangements and let curiosity drive them. Kids learn best when they don’t feel as though they’re learning, after all.
5: Carbon Robotics
Sometimes it’s best to keep robotics simple: to stick to one thing in particular, and make that thing as good as it can be. That’s exactly what Carbon Robotics has gone for with the development of its KATIA, which stands for “Kick Ass Trainable Intelligent Arm” and lets you know exactly what you can expect.
What makes the KATIA special is the sophistication of its operation. Empowered by a combination of machine learning and intuitive programming, it can rapidly be configured to achieve specific tasks (even robotic process automation). And since that KATIA itself can easily be scaled (just add more iterations of the same model), it’s possible to achieve remarkable things through cooperative automation.
In future, it may be quite economical to buy a set of KATIAs and set them up as the foundation of a manufacturing operation, for instance. Relative to the current practice of investing huge amounts in custom hardware, it could easily be a bargain.
What happens when you want to use robots on an industrial level but you really don’t want to tackle a complicated programming interface? It can be surprisingly tricky to quickly reduce a set of human movements to instructions for a robot, so it’s handy to have an alternative in the form of smart motion-tracking clothing from Wandelbots.
Created in 2017, this German business allows factory workers to put on Wandelbots clothing, carry out their tasks, and see all their movements converted into controls for suitably-implemented robots. This might sound disconcertingly like tasking employees with sealing their own redundancy, but automation changes are coming regardless — the faster existing tasks are automated, the faster those workers can be moved to different tasks.
The system adds to the data collected by the clothing with data drawn from external cameras. To put it in VR terms, it uses a combination of inside-out and outside-in tracking, with the result of yielding the greatest possible level of accuracy overall. With this system, the more complex robotics hardware becomes, the more tasks can be rapidly automated.
Each of these 6 startups is doing cool things with robotics, from closely monitoring the oceans to making robotic programming as simple as going through the motions. What will they achieve in the coming years? Only time will tell, but it’ll be great to find out.