Robots are being deployed everywhere from warehouses to roads to operating rooms. Here’s how DroneDeploy, Nimble, Nuro, and others are moving the industry forward.
Perhaps 2021 will be seen as a tipping point, the year we suddenly noticed that the robots were everywhere. In the factory, of course, the use of industrial robots around the world is rapidly accelerating, with average global robot density in manufacturing hitting 126 robots per 10,000 employees, nearly double the number from just five years ago, according to the 2021 World Robot Report. The auto industry is the biggest employer of robots by far, accounting for 42% of all installed units in 2021; there were nearly 1,300 robots for every 10,000 human employees in the car sector. Industrial robots are becoming more versatile, too: This year’s most innovative robotics companies include autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), such as Denmark’s Mobile Industrial Robots and Pittsburgh-based Seegrid, that use sensors and software to navigate safely through dynamic work environments, as well as collaborative “cobots”—the fastest-growing market segment—designed to work alongside humans and learn new tasks quickly. San Francisco-based Nimble uses AI and “imitation learning” to teach warehouse robots how to pick and pack products like cosmetics, apparel, and consumer electronics, once considered too delicate for robot handling, for U.S. customers including Best Buy, Victoria’s Secret, and Puma. With more businesses joining the rush to automate, companies that help make the design and deployment of robotic systems quicker and easier, such as SVT Robotics, are helping cut implementation times from months to weeks or days. This year’s list also illustrates advances in robotics outside the factory or warehouse: Drone Deploy makes software that enables drones to fly autonomous inspection and mapping missions of construction sites, energy infrastructure, and agricultural fields, while companies like Nuro and Coco are ramping up their robot delivery services for commercial customers in California and Texas. The FDA has approved a new generation of robotic assistants, such as those from Zimmer Biomet and Memic Innovative Surgery, to help surgeons perform less-invasive procedures more precisely. And working with the U.S. military, CRG Automation is using robotic systems to make the world safer, rapidly dismantling outdated stockpiles of chemical warheads.
For turning drone footage into useful maps
DroneDeploy’s software works with drones from Mavic and other makers, enabling them to set up autonomous inspection and mapping missions of construction sites, energy infrastructure, and agricultural fields. Its 360 Walkthrough functionality combines footage from drones, aerial cameras, and 360-cameras on the ground to provide digital reconstruction of sites from any angle. In 2021, DroneDeploy launched a partnership with agriscience company Corteva, which operates fleets of crop monitoring drones, to develop a tool called Stand Assessment, which uses data from drones to automate crop monitoring and planning. With $50 million raised in 2021, the company’s total fundraising to date is $142 million.
For bringing a softer touch to warehouse automation
In even the most highly automated fulfillment centers, picking and packing items for specific customer orders usually remains a manual task performed by human workers (who have been in short supply). San Francisco-based Nimbleuses AI and “imitation learning” to teach robots delicate pick-and-pack tasks that were previously considered too challenging to automate. The company says its robots have been trained to pick more than 500,000 unique products, including cosmetics, apparel, and consumer electronics, and are deployed with U.S. customers including Best Buy, Victoria’s Secret, and Puma. In March 2021, Nimble raised $50 million Series A financing led by DNS Capital and GSR Ventures.
3. MOBILE INDUSTRIAL ROBOTS
For bringing heavy lifting power to precision robotics
This Danish robot maker beefed up its product line in 2021, adding two new autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to its manufacturing and warehouse line. The new models can haul and lift loads up to nearly 3,000 pounds, have components rated to hold up to dust and water drops, and are equipped with multiple sensors, 3D cameras, and lidar to avoid collision with human coworkers.
For introducing a rent-a-robot business model
In 2021, Pittsburgh-based Seegrid, which makes self-driving tow tractors and pallet trucks used in warehouses, launched its first autonomous lift truck, the Palion Lift AMR, which has a 3,500 pound capacity and navigates programmed routes with input as needed from a human supervisor. Palion AMRs have driven more than 5 million autonomous miles in customer facilities without a single personnel incident. Incorporating AI and a proprietary vision system, Palion AMRs see, understand, and learn about their environments. Seegrid also rolled out a new Robots as a Service (RaaS) subscription model, to provide an alternative to traditional lease or purchase programs. customers.
For going the last mile
Mountain View-based Nuro‘s mission is “to better everyday life through robotics,” specifically less driving. Its R2 robot is the first completely autonomous, zero-occupant on-road vehicle approved for commercial delivery by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In April, the company partnered with Domino’s to autonomously deliver pizza to customers in Houston. In June, Nuro launched a new partnership with FedEx, which will use the R2 and a new vehicle for last-mile delivery in FedEx facilities. In November, the company, which is building an assembly facility in southern Nevada, secured a $600 million in a funding round led by Tiger Global.
6. ZIMMER BIOMET
For making implant surgery less invasive
In August, Warsaw, Indiana-based Zimmer Biomet secured FDA clearance for its ROSA robot, designed to assist surgeons with the positioning and placement of hip implants in minimally invasive hip replacement surgeries. More than 450,000 total hip replacements are performed each year in the U.S., and that number is expected rise significantly. The company’s three earlier surgical robots are approved for knee, spinal, and neurosurgery applications.
7. CRG AUTOMATION
For rendering deadly warheads harmless
When the U.S. Department of Defense put out a call for help in dismantling a stockpile of old sarin-gas rocket warheads, Louisville, Kentucky-based robotics integrator CRG Automation designed a custom system that combined traditional industrial robots and newer autonomous robots to make the work safer and more efficient. After an 18-month design and approval process, the system has been running at the Blue Grass Facility in Kentucky through 2021, on track to complete the project by a DOD deadline of 2023.
8. MEMIC INNOVATIVE SURGERY
For giving robot surgeons more humanlike hands
Granted FDA approval in March 2021, Tel Aviv-based Memic’s Hominis robotic-assisted surgical device (RASD) facilitates minimally invasive hysterectomies with a first-of-its-kind system that uses humanlike robotic arms and hands manipulated by a surgeon. The surgery, authorized for noncancerous conditions only, requires fewer abdominal incisions than conventional methods, with less risk of infection and other complications. Memic, which raised $96 million last year to deploy the technology, recently announced its first U.S. customers—Kendall Regional Medical Center, AdventHealth Celebration, and the Women’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial, in Florida.
9. SVT ROBOTICS
For easing the pain in setting up warehouse robotics
Integration of technology into warehouse robotics systems is a notoriously painful process that SVT Robotics aims to make easier with its Softbot software platform. Softbot enables businesses to connect their enterprise systems easily to any robot or automation in just days or weeks, not months or years, without having to write any custom code. The company says its implementations have increased 375% from Q4 2020 to July of this year, its workforce doubled, and it raised a $25M Series A in November 2021. Seoul-based multinational CJ Logistics is a flagship customer, using Softbot to rapidly test and integrate robotics technologies for their customers worldwide, reducing onboarding time by 50%, and costs by 30%.
For making robot delivery work for small businesses
Since launching in summer 2020, Coco has grown to more than 120 employees and operates its remote-operated delivery “robots” across Los Angeles and beyond. With 1,000 “devices” making deliveries for 50-plus restaurant brands, ghost kitchens, convenience and liquor stores, groceries, and small businesses, Coco claims to be the largest robotic delivery service in the industry. After raising a $36 million Series A in August, Coco announced a planned expansion into Miami in early 2022 and launches in at least five major U.S. cities in the first half of 2022.