Robot Investments Weekly: Machine Vision, Drone Startups Garner Funding

Robotics Business Review

Automation transactions seem to alternate in the investor spotlight, with artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and robots for a variety of applications each taking a bow. In the past week or so, investor attention turned to aerial drone startups and machine vision developers.

In “Robot Investments Weekly,” Robotics Business Review compiles the latest transactions across the global robotics industry. For more information, RBR Insiders can access our Transactions Database to search, sort, and print by transaction type, date, or industry. We also maintain databases of companies and startups, including the 2018 RBR50 leaders in the robotics industry.

In addition, our Q2 Transactions Report looks at robotics trends over the past quarter. Let’s look at the dozen or so most recent deals around AI, sensors, and unmanned vehicles.

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Drone startups accelerate down the runway

The recent assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela using a drone was a reminder of the need for airborne security measures. The U.S. Air Force awarded a $12.7 million contract to Hunt Valley, Md.-based AAI Corp. for an unmanned “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” (ISR) system to protect forces at airfields.

The Air Force also placed a $45 million order with ManTech International Corp. in Fairfax, Va., to provide technical support for the next generation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). This includes work on sensors, targeting systems, advanced computing, and communications.

DARPA's Subterranean Challenge is one example of this week's deals involving drone startups.

DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge (Click here to enlarge.) Source: DARPA

On a related note, iRobot Defense Holdings Inc. won a $1.48 million contract for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Subterranean (Sub-T) Challenge. Since iRobot sold its defense and security business to Arlington Capital Partners LLC in 2016, that group is known as Endeavor Robotics.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aren’t just getting funding from the military, with growing applications ranging from agriculture and energy to possible drone deliveries. The commercial drone market could be worth as much as $100 billion by 2020, predicts Goldman Sachs. Most drone startups have successfully pivoted from consumer use to commercial services.

FairFleet obtained funding from High-Tech Gründerfonds. The Munich-based drone startup describes itself as a “full service provider,” offering everything from planning, pilot management, and aerial survey to data analysis. The companies did not disclose terms.

Investors see a bright future for machine vision apps

Drones and robots are only as good as the cameras and other sensors that help them navigate, detect and recognize objects, and interact with them. The machine vision market continues to set growth records, according to the Association for the Advancement of Automation (A3).

The machine vision market will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.61% from 2017 to 2023, predicts Markets and Markets, growing from $7.91 billion last year to $12.28 billion in 2023.

Index Ventures led Series B funding of $18 million for Scale Inc., which spun out of MIT and is working on applying deep learning to computer vision. Other investors included Accel, Y Combinator, Drew Huston, and Justin Kan.

“A significant hurdle to building machine learning is building the capability to label large data sets,” said CEO Alexandr Wang on Scale’s blog. “We’re aiming to accomplish exactly what cloud computing did—offer reliable, cost-effective, scalable infrastructure to make it easier to build incredible applications.”

He noted that deep learning and machine vision will affect markets including manufacturing, agriculture, and autonomous vehicles. San Francisco-based Scale is working with self-driving companies such as GM Cruise, Lyft, nuTonomy, and Zoox.

La Jolla, Calif.-based Accel Robotics Corp. raised $3.5 million through an equity sale for its own machine vision systems, which it plans to apply to the retail and hospitality space.

Accelerator MassChallenge Texas awarded no-equity prizes to eight companies, including $16,000 to Greece-based Augmenta. The machine vision startup is developing a plug-and-play device to to enable precise spraying of fertilizers and pesticide.

MassChallenge also awarded $10,000 to Re:3D for its Gigabot, an industrial 3D printer designed to work with reclaimed plastic trash.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Clobotics raised $11 million to expand its business in North America and build its machine vision and AI team. Investors included Nantian Infotech VC and Wangsu Science and Technology. Clobotics is currently focusing on services combining drones and AI for preventative maintenance of wind turbines, as well as optimization of retail sales based on smartphone photos of store shelves.

Other automation transactions

Although summer doldrums may mean fewer transactions, there’s always something going on around AI (in addition to the machine vision deals described above). Robotics Business Review tries to focus on industrial applications of machine learning, so you won’t see a lot about chatbots, cryptocurrencies, or financial trading here.

U.K.-based SenSat received $4.5 million in seed funding to develop its simulation technology. Investors included Force Over Mass, Round Hill Venture Partners, and Zag.

The company said its cloud-based offering “turns complex visual and spatial data into a real-time simulated reality that helps computers solve real-world problems.”

SenSat’s Mapp program has supported infrastructure and construction projects by National Grid and Highways England. It aggregates data that can then be used in models and augmented and virtual reality.

Also in AI, Intel Corp. acquired deep learning startup, but no terms were disclosed.

In government investments, the U.K. plans to spend £791 million ($1 billion U.S.) on research and development in advanced technologies including robotics. This is part of a wider initiative to make Edinburgh, Scotland, the “data capital of Europe,” Brexit notwithstanding.

In supply chain transactions, SSI Schaefer has invested an unnamed sum in Austria-based DS Automotion to build up its automated guided vehicle (AGV) portfolio.

Academy of Robotics was so successful in raising $127.3 million for its Kar-Go autonomous delivery vehicle that it passed on another $500,000.

Restaurant robotics have gotten some buzz lately, and Ono Food Co. got funding from Lemnos Labs, Compound, and Pathbreaker Ventures. We’ll have to wait and see what’s on the menu.

My colleague Keith Shaw is on a well-deserved vacation this week, but he’ll be back next week to share the latest in automation transactions. Until then, keep watching RBR, sign up for RoboBusiness 2018, and stay cool!

The post Robot Investments Weekly: Machine Vision, Drone Startups Garner Funding appeared first on Robotics Business Review.

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