Robot Investments Weekly: Self-Driving Car Development Accelerates

Robotics Business Review

Don’t be scared because today is Friday the 13th – I promise I won’t write about black cats, broken mirrors, and I’m mostly sure there’s nobody about to jump out with a hockey mask and chainsaw. Instead, let’s chat about all of the recent investments in the robotics and AI space, including developments in the self-driving car market.

Today, we’re highlighting more than 15 transactions from recent weeks, but you can always track more investments in the RBR Transactions Database. Our regularly updated database lets you sort deals by company, industry, technology, or transaction type.

RBR Insiders can also download the Q1 2018 Transactions Report, which gives further analysis on automation spending. We are furiously working on the Q2 report, so stay tuned!

Self-driving car development race speeds up

China’s Pony.AI, already the recipient of $112 million earlier in the year, announced another $102 million in funding for its autonomous vehicle development. The company did a soft launch of an autonomous ride-hailing service in Guangzhou in February, becoming the first company to offer self-driving car rides to the public in China. The company said it has given more than 1,000 rides covering an area of about 19 square miles.

In addition, last month the company began testing in Bejing – it said that over 10 days, it was able to fulfill all requirements for the T3 license in China.

In addition to logging no less than 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) autonomously in a closed site of public roads, test criteria include 39 distinct capabilities split across six categories. These categories cover not only autonomous driving ability but also safety and in-vehicle procedures. Similar to DMV road tests for human drivers, Pony.ai vehicles were required to demonstrate capability in a series of road scenarios ranging from the simple to complex. These items include anything from right and left-hand turns to high-volume traffic roundabouts. Driving capability, safety, and vehicle operations were holistically evaluated before a testing permit was issued.

The funding will be used to expand its fleet of vehicles, grow its team, support existing and new partnerships, and move towards commercialization.

Israeli-based Arbe Robotics announced $10 million in additional funding for development of its next-generation imaging radar for the self-driving car industry. The company said it would use the funding to expand its customer-facing U.S. operations, as well as expand its presence in the Chinese automotive market.

The company makes “ultra high-resolution 4D imaging radar with post processing and Simultatenous Localization and Mapping (SLAM)” technology. The company is “bridging the gap between radar and optics with its proprietary imaging solution that provides optic sensor resolution with the reliability and maturity of radar technology for all levels of vehicle autonomy.”

Drone investments include repair, counter-measure funding

Moving from self-driving cars to autonomous aerial vehicles, recent funding around drones continues to remain a hot area.

Japan’s V-Cube Robotics changed its name to Sensyn Robotics and announced $10.82 million in funding. Since its founding three years ago, the company has been developing systems that combine drones with other advanced technologies. The new company will focus on using drones for equipment inspection, disaster countermeasures, and security monitoring.

RQ-4 Global Hawk self-driving car article

An RQ-4 Global Hawk records intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. Rolls-Royce was awarded a contract to repair engines on the drone aircraft. (Courtesy photo)

The U.S. government also awarded two contracts related to drones. In the first, the Department of Defense awarded a $420 million contract to Rolls-Royce for the maintenance, repair, and rebuilding of engines used on MQ-4C Triton and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.

The RQ-4 aircraft is a large high-altitude UAV used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, with a wingspan over 130 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 16 tons. The MQ-4C Triton is a variation of the RQ-4, designed as a sensor platform for long-range and high-endurance surveillance missions over ocean and coastal areas.

The second contract was awarded by the U.S. Air Force, granted to the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. The $977,075 award is for research and development of unmanned aerial systems detection and counter-measures.

Toyota, venture funds announce funding opportunities

Private equity companies continue to raise their own funding that they then invest in other startups – usually we avoid writing about those funding announcements, but there were a few interesting ones around the robotics and AI topic areas that we cover.

Glasswing Ventures announced a new AI-focused venture fund aimed at U.S. East Coast companies. The $112 million fund would be used to invest in early-stage companies, “harnessing the transformational power of AI and complementary frontier technologies to create the intelligent platforms of the future.”

Scale Venture Partners announced a new $400 million fund to help “invest in the future of work.” The Fund VI would be used to “continue our strategy of investing in software companies that are creating the future of work,” the company said. Locus Robotics, DocuSign, Box, and DataStax are among the companies the venture firm has funded.

Toyota AI Ventures announced a “call for innovation” in partnership with the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) to help “spur entrepreneurial innovation by identifying key technology gaps.” The opportunity would let startups secure from $500,000 up to $2 million in venture funding from Toyota AI Ventures. The startups could also create proof-of-concept projects with TRI, the company said.

The first phase is looking to focus on “improving mobile manipulation technology for assistive robots that can help people in and around the home.”

Future projects could include other areas, such as automated driving, perception, machine learning, or simulation.

More details on the “call for innovation” can be found here.

ABB acquires Turkish welding robot maker

Last week, ABB announced it would acquire AB Rotech, a privately owned company based in Turkey that develops robotic welding solutions and services for the automotive industry. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Wrapping up the rest:

Here are some other quick investments that we were tracking this week – just click the link to see their announcement:

Investments that could relate to robotics someday

I wanted to wrap up this week by focusing on some companies that received investments recently, but that aren’t directly related to robotics or AI. However, several of these technologies could someday be integrated in new robotics or automation systems. Pure speculation on my part, but still a fun exercise.

For example, Chinese company Hongshi Technology, which received $18 million in funding, is developing iris recognition technology for smartphones and other security platforms. It’s not a stretch to imagine this technology being utilized by a security robot, for example, to enable identification of people entering a building.

Similarly, Blink Identity, providing “identity in motion” technology in the facial recognition, scored $1.5 million in funding from investors, including Live Nation. The company created a fast and accurate identity service for live entertainment venues, which Live Nation plans to deploy at its events. If successful, it’s possible that this could be used with robots that need to scan crowds quickly or identify them as well.

Cell-Ed, which is providing a mobile learning platforms for low-skilled workers, received $1.5 million in funding. As companies look to retrain and re-skill their employees affected by automation and robotics efforts, this company’s systems could be utilized.

In the world of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR), two notable investments happened this week. First, AT&T announced it would be investing in Magic Leap, which plans on shipping its mixed-reality headset later this year. AT&T would also be the exclusive U.S. carrier for the device, which combines digital graphics in the ‘virtual’ world with real-world objects. Despite a lot of hype around the device, some media outlets were disappointed with the company’s latest demo.

Another investment in the AR/VR space was Penrose Studios, which raised $10 million in funding. The company is developing entertainment content for AR and VR use cases.

While those investments don’t have direct bearing on robotics, we have been following this space as it relates to educational training and maintenance options for manufacturers, which could use this technology alongside its automation systems and robotics. It’s something to keep aware of as the market develops.

That’s it for this week, see you on the flip side!

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