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Main article: Robots

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WhiteFox Defense lands $12 million as the demand for drone defense technologies intensifies

18:48 | 5 December

Four months ago, when two commercial DJI-made drones loaded with 1 kilogram each of plastic explosive href="https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/05/venezuela-claims-drones-loaded-with-explosives-used-in-failed-attack-on-president/">detonated during a speech from Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro at a military event in Caracas, the world at large was introduced to the newest threat from our automated, dystopian present — cheap weaponized drone technology.

For Luke Fox, the founder and chief executive of WhiteFox Defense Technologies, it was simply the latest in a string of events proving the need for the kinds of services his company is developing. Something he calls “a highway patrol for the sky.”

From drug smuggling to reconnaissance and information gathering to terror attacks, unmanned aerial drones are no longer the provenance of state military and police actors, and are increasingly being used by criminal organizations to open new, aerial fronts in their operations.

“Drones are by far the biggest asymmetric threat that the U.S. faces,” says Fox. “Countries that don’t have a state sponsored drone program are using them [and] it’s where you see people like ISIS are going.”

In the battle for Mosul in Iraq, ISIS flew over 300 drone missions in one month, according to a talk given last year at CyCon from Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the New America Foundation. One-third of those were strike missions, representing the first time U.S. military faced an aerial attack since the Korean War.

The 24-year-old Fox began thinking seriously about the weaponization of commercial and consumer drone technology six years ago, when he founded WhiteFox Defense.

Creating the company was an extension of the way that Fox had been taught to think about the world as a child, he’s said. Fox grew up in an abusive foster home, raised by a mentally ill foster mother (who was, herself, a child protective service employee) who had adopted him and a number of mentally and physically challenged children.

“The reality i grew up in had my mind constantly looking for vulnerabilities. And instead of seeing these vulnerabilities as opportunities for crime i now had a whole color palette to choose from,” said Fox. “For example when the world started going crazy over drones as recreational toys i saw that they could be used as weapons or crime and this insight into the criminal mind inspired a company that defends the country from drones.”

Fox was adopted from foster care by the librarian of his local Sacramento-area high school, tested out of college and went on to a community college before enrolling in California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

He began working with drones while in school and credits that introduction to the technology as the inspiration for starting White Fox.

“We previously started out in drone manufacturing starting out in high performance drones for specialty clients and research organizations. we needed affordable drones that were highly capable,” said Fox. “Making a highly capable drone that was very affordable attracted some very shady people. And, realizing that there was only so much we could control, it brought us to ask what is out there? At the time, the only thing to counter drones related attacks was large missiles shooting down large Iranian drones.”

WhiteFox currently has three products either in development or on the market. Two have already been released to a select group of customers in different industries and the entire suite will be launched at the beginning of next year, according to Fox.

Without going into specific details of how the technology works, Fox said that WhiteFox Defense systems can detect, identify and mitigate unauthorized drones flying in a particular airspace.

“It’s not jamming or blocking drones or catching them out of the sky,” says Fox. Rather the idea is to provide situational awareness and identify the type of threat that an errant drone represents — whether the operator is, in Fox’s words, “clueless, careless or criminal.”

What Fox would say is that his company has developed a technology that’s based on identifying and differentiating between drones based on their unique radio frequency signatures. That product for identifying drones operating in a space is complemented by a second technology offering which allows WhiteFox to take control of the unauthorized drones in an airspace.

“One of the technologies that was started at Drones For Change [the company that would become WhiteFox] was a universal controller,” said Fox. “That technology really formed the basis. We asked what if this universal controller could become a master controller to take over any drone that was in your airspace? That solved the problem that got us out of drone manufacturing.”

WhiteFox isn’t alone in its attempts to create anti-drone technology. According to some industry statistics there are at least 70 companies working on drone defense technologies with solutions ranging from deploying other drones to capture unauthorized UAVs to jamming technologies that will block a drone’s signal.

Earlier this year, Airspace Systems raised $20 million for its kinetic(drone vs. drone) approach to drone defense, while Citadel Defense raised $12 million and Dedrone pulled in $15 million for their drone-jamming technologies.  And last year, SkySafe raised $11.5 million for a radio-jamming approach similar to WhiteFox, which forces unauthorized drones out of restricted airspace while permitting authorized drones to still fly.

“As​ ​the​ ​adoption​ ​of​ ​consumer​ ​drones increases,​ ​we​ ​believe​ ​it​ ​is​ ​vital​ ​for​ ​an​ ​ambitious​ ​and​ ​effective​ ​defense​ ​platform​ ​to​ ​emerge,” said Alex Rubacalva, a partner at Stage Venture Partners and an early investor in WhiteFox Defense. 

In all, drone-related startups have raised nearly $2 billion in the last eight years, according to data from Crunchbase, pulled at the beginning of 2018. Roughly $600 million of that investment total has come in 2017 and the early part of 2018 alone, the Crunchbase data indicated.

Technologies like SkySafe and WhiteFox are about more than just defending airspace from malicious actors.

“Counter drone technology is not just about securing spaces from drones and preventing bad things from happening,” says Fox. “It’s about enabling drones to be used in the right way.”

The applications extend far beyond military uses. In fact, Fox’s technology is already being adopted by prisons around the U.S. and, indeed, anywhere where airspace usage can be considered sensitive.

“Someone described as the largest delivery operations in the world is happening at prisons,” said Fox. “You have a lot of money behind buying a DJI at best buy and loading it up with heroin, with drugs, with weapons, with even chinese food that was smuggled in. We found that there were drones smuggling in contraband every single day.”

WhiteFox recently conducted a survey with an undisclosed large public prison system in the United States to study just how pervasive a problem drone-smuggling was among its prison population. What the prison saw as one drone a week flying into restricted airspace became a realization that multiple drone flights per day were occurring in attempts to smuggle contraband onto prison grounds.

Operations extend far beyond police and military applications though, according to Fox.

During the California wildfires, rescue operations were halted thanks to unauthorized usage of drones by civilian operators who wanted to capture footage of the disaster. Their actions potentially risked the lives of not only rescue workers but of the citizens they were trying to save and the fire crews attempting to control the worst wildfire in the state’s history.

“This is one of the fascinating things about this industry as a whole,” says Fox. “It’s not that drones are bad and scary and we need to do something about them. If we’re going to embrace this technology as a society we need to be able to safely integrate it into society.”

From its initial deployments, WhiteFox was able to convince investors to funnel $12 million into the company to finance its expansion plans.

The extension of the company’s seed round included investors like JAM Capital, Stage Venture Partners, Okapi Venture Capital, Serra Ventures, and OCA Ventures. 

“WhiteFox’s customers are armed with a highly robust and scalable-for-deployment technology​ ​platform​ ​that​ ​addresses​ ​the​ ​increased​ ​threat​ ​of​ ​hostile​ ​drones​ ​and enables​ ​greater​ ​control​ ​of​ ​their​ ​airspace.,” said Jeff Bocan, a partner at OKapi Venture Capital, in a statement.​ “Crucially, the WhiteFox’s technology also offers customers the ability to protect against reckless drone use, while enabling “friendly” drones to fly freely – all without any human intervention.”

 


0

Robot couriers scoop up early-stage cash

22:00 | 1 December

Much of the last couple of decades of innovation has centered around finding ways to get what we want without leaving the sofa.

So far, online ordering and on-demand delivery have allowed us to largely accomplish this goal. Just point, click and wait. But there’s one catch: Delivery people. We can never all lie around ordering pizzas if someone still has to deliver them.

Enter robots. In tech-futurist circles, it’s pretty commonplace to hear predictions about how some medley of autonomous vehicles and AI-enabled bots will take over doorstep deliveries in the coming years. They’ll bring us takeout, drop off our packages and displace lots of humans who currently make a living doing these things.

If this vision does become reality, there’s a strong chance it’ll largely be due to a handful of early-stage startups currently working to roboticize last-mile delivery. Below, we take a look at who they are, what they’re doing, who’s backing them and where they’re setting up shop.

The players

Crunchbase data unearthed at least eight companies in the robot delivery space with headquarters or operations in North America that have secured seed or early-stage funding in the past couple of years.

They range from heavily funded startups to lean seed-stage operations. Silicon Valley-based Nuro, an autonomous delivery startup founded by former engineers at Alphabet’s Waymo, is the most heavily funded, having raised $92 million to date. Others have raised a few million.

In the chart below, we look at key players, ranked by funding to date, along with their locations and key investors.

Who’s your backer?

While startups may be paving the way for robot delivery, they’re not doing so alone. One of the ways larger enterprises are keeping a toehold in the space is through backing and partnering with early-stage startups. They’re joining a long list of prominent seed and venture investors also eagerly eyeing the sector.

The list of larger corporate investors includes Germany’s Daimler, the lead investor in Starship Technologies. China’s Tencent, meanwhile, is backing San Francisco-based Marble, while Toyota AI Ventures has invested in Boxbot.

As for partnering, takeout food delivery services seem to be the most active users of robot couriers.

Starship, whose bot has been described as a slow-moving, medium-sized cooler on six wheels, is making particularly strong inroads in takeout. The San Francisco- and Estonia-based company, launched by Skype founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, is teaming up with DoorDash and Postmates in parts of California and Washington, DC. It’s also working with the Domino’s pizza chain in Germany and the Netherlands.

Robby Technologies, another maker of cute, six-wheeled bots, has also been partnering with Postmates in parts of Los Angeles. And Marble, which is branding its boxy bots as “your friendly neighborhood robot,” teamed up last year for a trial with Yelp in San Francisco.

San Francisco Bay Area dominates

While their visions of world domination are necessarily global, the robot delivery talent pool remains rather local.

Six of the eight seed- and early-stage startups tracked by Crunchbase are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the remaining two have some operations in the region.

Why is this? Partly, there’s a concentration of talent in the area, with key engineering staff coming from larger local companies like Uber, Tesla and Waymo . Plus, of course, there’s a ready supply of investor capital, which bot startups presumably will need as they scale.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco, known for scarce and astronomically expensive housing, are also geographies in which employers struggle to find people to deliver stuff at prevailing wages to the hordes of tech workers toiling at projects like designing robots to replace them.

That said, the region isn’t entirely friendly territory for slow-moving sidewalk robots. In San Francisco, already home to absurdly steep streets and sidewalks crowded with humans and discarded scooters, city legislators voted to ban delivery robots from most places and severely restrict them in areas where permitted.

The rise of the pizza delivery robot manager

But while San Francisco may be wary of a delivery robot invasion, other geographies, including nearby Berkeley, Calif., where startup Kiwi Campus operates, have been more welcoming.

In the process, they’re creating an interesting new set of robot overseer jobs that could shed some light on the future of last-mile delivery employment.

For some startups in early trial mode, robot wrangling jobs involve shadowing bots and making sure they carry out their assigned duties without travails.

Remote robot management is also a thing and will likely see the sharpest growth. Starship, for instance, relies on operators in Estonia to track and manage bots as they make their deliveries in faraway countries.

For now, it’s too early to tell whether monitoring and controlling hordes of delivery bots will provide better pay and working conditions than old-fashioned human delivery jobs.

At least, however, much of it could theoretically be done while lying on the sofa.

 


0

The International Space Station’s new robot is a freaky floating space Alexa

22:28 | 30 November

Meet Cimon. The 3D printed floating robot head was developed by Airbus for the German Space Agency. He’s been a crew member of the International Space Station since June, though as Gizmodo notes, this is the first time we’re seeing him in action.

Really the floating, Watson-powered robot face is like an extremely expensive Amazon Echo designed to study human-machine interactions in space. This video highlights an early interaction between Cimon and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst.

Gerst requests his “favorite song,” leading Cimon to play Kraftwerk’s “Man Machine,” only to shaken by the astronaut, who then demands the robot shoot some video. Once again Cimon complies, though this time he’s clearly a bit annoyed that the music has stopped. Kind of a rough first encounter for the two new coworkers.

“Happy with his initial outing, both Cimon’s developers and Alexander hope to see Cimon back in action again soon,” the ESA says. “While no further sessions are planned during the Horizons mission at this stage, it could mark the beginning of exciting collaboration between astronauts, robotic assistants and possible future artificial intelligence in space.”

Hopefully things go a bit more smoothly next time. Lord knows the last thing you want to do is piss off a space robot.

 


0

Toyota taps Docomo 5G to remotely control its humanoid robot

19:12 | 30 November

Toyota introduced T-HR3 to the world right around this time last year. The humanoid robot is capable of mimicking to the motions of a plugged-in human, a la Pacific Rim and countless other sci-fi franchises. The ‘bot’s learned a few new tricks in the intervening years, including, notably, untethered control via 5G.

Using the next-gen wireless tech, a plot is able to remotely control the robot from a distance of up to 10 kilometers (~6 miles). Toyota notes in a press release tied to the news that, in spite of earlier images, demos have been performed with a tethered robot. Using 5G tech from Japanese carrier  Docomo, however, the robot can be controlled from a distance with low latency.

As for what such a robot might actual be good for (beyond knocking the snot out of pint-sized kaiju), Toyota sees potential in homes and healthcare, with an eye on “a prosperous society of mobility.”

At the very least, it’s a nice little bit of press for the promise of 5G connectivity, which networking companies aim to frame as being a relevant technology well beyond just smartphones and computers. The tech will be demoed at a Docomo event in Tokyo early next year. 

 


0

Rolling, hopping robots explore Earthly analogs of distant planets

17:40 | 29 November

Before we send any planet-trotting robot to explore the landscape of Mars or Venus, we need to test it here on Earth. Two such robotic platforms being developed for future missions are undergoing testing at European Space Agency facilities: one that rolls, and one that hops.

The rolling one is actually on the books to head to the Red Planet as part of the ESA’s Mars 2020 program. It’s just wrapped a week of testing in the Spanish desert, just one of many Mars analogs space programs use. It looks nice. The gravity’s a little different, of course, and there’s a bit more atmosphere, but it’s close enough to test a few things.

The team controlling Charlie, which is what they named the prototype, was doing so from hundreds of miles away, in the U.K. — not quite an interplanetary distance, but they did of course think to simulate the delay operators would encounter if the rover were actually on Mars. It would also have a ton more instruments on board.

Exploration and navigation was still done entirely using information collected by the rover via radar and cameras, and the rover’s drill was also put to work. It rained one day, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen on Mars, but the operators presumably pretended it was a dust storm and rolled with it.

Another Earth-analog test is scheduled for February in Chile’s Atacama desert. You can learn more about the ExoMars rover and the Mars 2020 mission here.

The other robot that the ESA publicized this week isn’t theirs but was developed by ETH Zurich: the SpaceBok —  you know, like springbok. The researchers there think that hopping around like that well-known ungulate could be a good way to get around on other planets.

It’s nice to roll around on stable wheels, sure, but it’s no use when you want to get to the far side of some boulder or descend into a ravine to check out an interesting mineral deposit. SpaceBok is mean to be a highly stable jumping machine that can traverse rough terrain or walk with a normal quadrupedal gait as needed (well, normal for robots).

“This is not particularly useful on Earth,” admits SpaceBok team member Elias Hampp, but “it could reach a height of four meters on the Moon. This would allow for a fast and efficient way of moving forward.”

It was doing some testing at the ESA’s “Mars Yard sandbox,” a little pen filled with Mars-like soil and rocks. The team is looking into improving autonomy with better vision — the better it can see where it lands, the better SpaceBok can stick that landing.

Interplanetary missions are very much in vogue now, and we may soon even see some private trips to the Moon and Mars. So even if NASA or the ESA doesn’t decide to take SpaceBok (or some similarly creative robot) out into the solar system, perhaps a generous sponsor will.

 


0

Robotic Exoskeleton company Roam raises a $12 million Series A

17:13 | 29 November

Bay Area-based robotic exoskeleton company Roam announced this morning that it has secured a $12 million series A. The round, led by Yamaha Motors, with investments from Boost VC, Heuristics Capital Partners, Menlo Ventures, R7 Partners, Spero Ventures, Valor Equity Partners and Venture Investment Associates, brings the company’s total funding up to around $15 million.

Investors are understandably bullish on the space, which has far-reaching implications for industrial workers and mobility. Of course, Roam’s got a fair bit of competition in the robotic exoskeleton category, including prominent names like Ekso and SuitX. So far, however, the company has looked to carve out a niche with a product focused on skiers.

The Elevate, first announced in March, will finally be available for demo rental over the Christmas holiday in select Lake Tahoe locations, followed by Park City, Utah over the Presidents’ Day holiday. This new round will go a ways toward boosting sales and marketing for the first product.

In addition to the funding, Yamaha partner Amish Parashar and Spero general partner Shripriya Mahesh will be joining Roam’s board of directors. Here’s the former on the deal, “By making these robotic exoskeletons affordable, scalable, and powerful Roam has removed the biggest barriers to widespread adoption. We envision these products will one day be commonly used to create new thrilling experiences and support human mobility.”

 


0

TechCrunch returns to Berkeley this April for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI

21:00 | 28 November

Who doesn’t love robotics? And who doesn’t love robotics and AI together for the first time? Take it all in at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on April 18, 2019. Get your tickets today at the Early Bird discount of $249 while they last. Students, we even have deeply discounted $45 tickets just for you!

TC Sessions: Robotics at UC Berkeley last year and MIT the year prior were epic by any standard. The speakers were the titans in the field — including Helen Greiner (CyPhyWorks), Rodney Brooks (ReThink Robotics), Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), Martin Buehler (Disney), Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics), Daniela Rus (MIT), Ayanna Howard (Georgia Tech), Homayoon Kazerooni (UC Berkeley, Ekso Bionics) and many, many more.

At both events, we noticed a focus on AI within robotics, which emerged in almost every session onstage. So this year, artificial intelligence will officially be a part of the event theme.

At TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, TechCrunch’s editors will run a full day of interviews and demos on the main stage and in parallel there will be workshops and networking sessions. Based on our past robotics events, we’re expecting an audience of more than 1,000 people, overwhelmingly made up of engineering students, technologists, founders and investors. So if you fall into one of those categories, please mark your calendars and join TechCrunch on April 18, 2019.

Get your tickets at the Early Bird rate now

 


0

Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

10:25 | 27 November

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and its collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.

 


0

That night, a forest flew: DroneSeed is planting trees from the air

00:07 | 27 November

Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence, and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods, and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns, and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, 6-gallon tanks of herbicide, and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters, and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones, and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money Droneseed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the US for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as Droneseed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it, and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this Droneseed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion, and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations, and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions, and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Although it’s difficult it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple feet even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded up with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s Head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of 5 or 6 drones does the work of a helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise, and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.

 


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Amazon launches a cloud-based robotics testing platform

21:34 | 26 November

Amazon’s kicking off Re:Invent week with the launch of AWS RoboMaker. The cloud-based service utilizes the widely deployed open source software Robot Operating System (ROS) to offer developers a place to develop and test robotics applications.

RoboMaker essentially serves as a platform to help speed up the time consuming robotics development process. Among the tools offered by the service are Amazon’s machine learning technologies and analytics that help create a simulation for real world robotics development.

The system can also be used to help manage fleet deployment for warehouse style robotics designed to work in tandem.

“AWS RoboMaker automatically provisions the underlying infrastructure and it downloads, compiles, and configures the operating system, development software, and ROS,” the company writes. “AWS RoboMaker’s robotics simulation makes it easy to set up large-scale and parallel simulations with pre-built worlds, such as indoor rooms, retail stores, and racing tracks, so developers can test their applications on-demand and run multiple simulations in parallel.”

The feature arrives as Amazon is taking a more serious look at robotics. The company has long deployed warehouse robotics, which will be in full force this holiday season. It’s also reportedly been looking at pick and place robots to help speed up fulfillment, along with a rumored home robot said to be on track for 2019.

 


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