Pittsburgh-based Gecko Robotics, which is developing robots to automate infrastructure inspections, is clearly tackling the issue of automating and improving on tasks that are “dirty, dull, or dangerous” within industrial inspection circles.
The company, which recently closed a $40 million Series B funding round, began developing the technology in 2016 to help modernize an industry that it says was “historically stagnant.” Gecko’s wall-climbing robots use acoustic, laser, electromagnetic and other non-destructive testing modules to focus on industrial plan inspections and to collect data on whether equipment needs to be maintained or replaced. Markets that the company serves include power, oil & gas, and pulp & paper, among others (See news story on The Robot Report).
Robotics Business Review recently spoke with the company’s CEO and co-founder, Jake Loosararian, about the levels of interest from industrial companies to use robots for inspection, challenges on the technology side, and how the company is dealing with scaling up so quickly.
Q: When you look at where you are in 2019 compared when you first started commercializing the robot, are customers in the phase where they are beyond the pilot and test phases – or do you still see a lot of ‘Let’s try it and see’ types of inquiries?
Loosararian: This is being fully relied upon by some of the largest, industry-leading companies. We are in the mass distribution phase of product-market fit.
Q: Are customers more interested in the ‘saving lives’ aspect of the Gecko robot (replacing or assisting ‘dull, dirty, dangerous’ tasks), or is it more about efficiency in getting inspections done quicker and having more accurate assessments? We’re wondering if one reason stands out more than others.
Loosararian: It varies from company to company, and point-of-sale to point-of sale. In general, the main driver for companies is to stop their infrastructure from failing and halting production. However, the liability and issues resulting from death and injuries in the workplace are a topic of much of the conversations.
Q: What is it about the wall-crawling features of the robot that appealed to you as an approach for inspection, compared with other systems such as aerial robots/drones, or even other ground-based approaches?
Loosararian: It would have been a lot easier to do drones. However, the types of structural integrity inspections that we do require continuous contact with the surface, precision, and large amounts of heavy payloads. This lends itself to making wall-climbing robots.
Q: Are customers looking at the systems to replace a manual inspection process, or have they tried other technology solutions and were not impressed?
Loosararian: Clients are looking to augment their approach, resulting in some complete replacements. However, in most cases, our tools are simply increasing the maintenance budgets at these sites. Robots are just a better tool for reducing risk on the jobs, and allowing humans to specialize more. In my head, this is what robots are supposed to do. Other systemsin the industry to not work reliably enough to compete or match Gecko’s inspections.
Q: What technology challenges are you tackling on the creation of the robots, such as hardware improvements, software, communications, etc.?
Loosararian: Machine learning for predictive maintenance, computer vision to detect visible defects better than human inspectors, localization, web portal products, more modular robotic platforms, small robots, and new sensor payloads, and more.
Q: You have grown the company from 45 employees to 115 in the past 12 months, which is fast even for a startup. What challenges do you have in scaling up so quickly?
Loosararian: The scale is fast, and the main challenges are just about keeping up with the orders. [The company said it plans to use the additional funding to support its business operations, with a focus on hiring software and product engineers].
Q: What makes Pittsburgh attractive to you for your headquarters – is it access to potential customers in industrial areas in the Midwest, or more about being able to attract robotics talent from the Pittsburgh ecosystem?
Loosararian: The city has been an amazing home for us. We moved here from Silicon Valley after our YCombinator demo day, because we believed in the quality of talent and proximity to our early customers. Carnegie Mellon University and the other universities are some of the best in the world in robotics and computer science, allowing us to partner with them to scale in a healthy way. Another benefit, which cannot be understated, is the cost of living. We also have offices in Houston and Austin, Texas.