AI News, Fetch Robotics: Unbounded Core Team Developing New Robots for Logistics

Fetch Robotics: Unbounded Core Team Developing New Robots for Logistics

Today, Fetch Robotics is announcing its existence, a big chunk of funding, and the fact that it’s working on not one, but two robots, one of which is a mobile manipulator targeting the logistics market.

The rest of the meat in the press release is the following (although you can read the whole thing here): Fetch Robotics will use the funding to bring their inaugural robots to market.

There’s not a lot here about what exactly Fetch is developing, but we got a chance to ask Fetch CEO Melonee Wise some questions about what she and her team are working on: Can you talk about what you’re building at Fetch?

This is a frustratingly small amount of detail, we know, but Q2 isn’t that far away, so it’s reasonable to expect that we’ll see some prototypes in April, if not before.

We also spoke with Rob Coneybeer, managing director at Shasta Ventures, about why now is the time to invest in a robotics startup that wants to make mobile manipulators for logistics, and why they decided to put their faith in Fetch specifically:

Their product will be coming later this year, but fundamentally, we think that robotics is reaching an inflection point where you start to be able to do interesting things because of advances in actuators and processors and machine vision that allow robots to work in close proximity to people.

We’re interested in the people that want to build a big business, and in talking with Melonee and her core team, they want to build something that can be their life’s work.

We asked Coneybeer about Unbounded Robotics, and while he wouldn’t comment on what happened, he did say this: Fetch is a brand new company, has no legacy from any prior company, and no intellectual property from prior companies.

We also asked Wise a few pointed questions about the relationship between Unbounded and Fetch, and it’s pretty clear that besides the core team (Melonee Wise, Michael Ferguson, Derek King, and Eric Diehr), there isn’t one: Is there any relationship between Fetch Robotics and Unbounded Robotics?

It’s not often that companies get second chances like this, and I’m certain that the Unbounded core team (and the rest of the roboticists at Fetch) are looking forward to proving that they can deliver the next generation of mobile manipulators.

This Woman Makes Robots. And No One Is Going to Stop Her.

Melonee Wise paces through the aisles of a small mock warehouse, pausing every so often to take an item from a shelf and drop it into a blue bin beside her.

She is one of the most watched and most admired roboticists in the industry today, and these creations are the latest embodiment of her worldview, one that was cultivated first at the famed Bay Area laboratory Willow Garage, followed by a short-lived startup called Unbounded Robotics and now Fetch Robotics, where she is CEO.

The human and the robot are working together in casual harmony, bringing to life a dream many have nurtured for decades.

Unlike the robots in Amazon warehouses, which require specially made shelving and an actual human to pull goods off of a shelf, Fetch and Freight can drop into nearly any stockroom and autonomously ferry items from place to place.

Yet this spring, just a couple months after announcing Fetch Robotics and $3 million in Series A funding, the core team from Unbounded was already showing off two mature robots.

“Train,” by Melonee Wise.In her grandmother’s Montessori daycare she was prodded to keep trying new things, and she found that she loved math and building with blocks.

She had grown up poor, and pursuing photography as a career didn’t feel like a smart way to start making money.

She had befriended a close friend’s roommate — Derek King, a quiet guy who lit up when one of his interests came up in conversation.

She was accepted into the mechanical engineering PhD program at the University of Illinois and celebrated with a tattoo on her wrist of a turtle, representing the slow road to graduation.

While working on the car they met a man named Scott Hassan, who provided the four Ford Escapes the team was hacking into autonomous vehicles.

“I would never guess that the company I became the second employee of would become one of the most influential companies in robotics of the decade.

At research institutions, teams tended to spend years building a robot’s basic hardware and software.

A company or research center can start with a versatile, pre-built robot or software and jump right into building applications for it.

She’s got the eye of the tiger.” Yet Willow Garage still wasn’t commercially viable, and the team spent the next year and a half searching for a way forward.

It never found a clear next move and began spinning off small sets of employees as profit-oriented startups.

In January 2012, Wise gathered a team at Willow Garage to build a bot that could roll around a room and move objects — what’s known as a mobile manipulation robot.

King had been hired on a few years back, and their duo expanded to four as they grew close to mechanical engineer Eric Diehr and software engineer Michael Ferguson.

Wise, King, Diehr and Ferguson broke off in February 2013 and called themselves Unbounded Robotics, trusting that they could develop a concrete spinoff agreement once Willow Garage’s situation settled down.

It wasn’t crystal clear that UBR-1 belonged to Wise and her team, and that made investors wary enough that Unbounded couldn’t raise its first round of funding.

Photo courtesy of Unbounded Robotics.Not long after Unbounded shut down, the team saw a vague job posting seeking “robotics gurus.” Steve Hogan, of technology incubator Tech-Rx, wanted to get in on the coming robotics boom.

They spent six weeks researching markets such as robotic arms, hospitality and elder care before settling on e-commerce as the target for their future robot.

“We think it’s one of the best robotics teams in the world.” To finally capture their Series A funding, Fetch had to leave behind all of the Unbounded IP and, once again, start over.

It totally changed how we approached the problem and made us more creative.” In an empty back room at Fetch Robotics headquarters in San Jose, a Fetch robot moves each axis of its long arm in turn.

Fetch can roll into a warehouse and start picking items off of shelves and dropping them into a second Freight, this one carrying a bin and traveling at its side.

A new Freight, each of which can carry up to 110 pounds, can swap itself in after a full one rolls away — no human input necessary.

Wise fills the Freight bin to the brim with Pringles, soap and other knick-knacks that the Fetch employees had picked up at a local dollar store (the cashier asked if they were preparing for the end of the world).

Wise’s role as the picker could be replaced entirely by a Fetch, which uses sensors in its head to locate and grab items with its pincer-like hand.

A warehouse’s database integrates with Fetch’s brain to let the robot know the area in which to find an item, but it is up to the robot to pick out an individual object.

Wise won’t set the pricing until after the pilot tests, but she says a robot working 8 hours a day would pay for itself in a year.

Photo by Signe Brewster.A lot of things have become clear to Wise since she began building commercial robots — things unimagined by the young woman who eschewed big corporations because she did not want to settle.

Fetch Robotics plans to announce and ship two mobile manipulation robots in the second quarter that are aimed principally at the logistics and light industrial markets, “as well as for other human-robot collaboration opportunities,”

This is about a tenth the cost of a similar, dual-armed PR2 mobile manipulation robot developed at Willow Garage, the company that also developed the popular, open source ROS development environment. UBR-1

By August, IEEE Spectrum reported the company was shutting down, possibly due to issues with the Willow Garage spin-off agreement that prevented Unbounded from raising series A funding.

Mobile manipulation takes off Coneybeer goes on to tell IEEE Spectrum: “Robotics is reaching an inflection point where you start to be able to do interesting things because of advances in actuators and processors and machine vision that allow robots to work in close proximity to people.”

The key innovation of the UBR-1, however, was the ability to combine those human-friendly algorithms with semi-autonomous mobility and dexterous gripper arms in an affordable package, says Dan Kara, Practice Director, Robotics, at ABI Research.

Even setting aside the still substantial challenges in human-robot interaction and autonomous movement, engineering a mobile robot with a heavy, dexterous arm and gripper assembly is difficult.

September, after IEEE Spectrum confirmed the demise of Unbounded Robotics, ABI’s Kara posted an analysis piece, in which he questioned the premise that Wise and her team left due to prohibitions on funding.

Kara floated the possibility that the Willow spinoff agreement might have specified the sharing of key technologies that might emerge based on Willow IP, such as the ability to combine mobility with manipulation.

One reason mobile manipulation is such a hot ticket is the growth in the logistics and fulfillment market caused by the boom in ecommerce, says Kara.

Kara noted that Amazon has found great success with the 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems that brought it a fleet of Kiva robots, some 15,000 of which move packages around Amazon fulfillment centers.

Amazon won’t release the Kiva design until at least 2016, so “if you’re a small fulfillment company, you’re out of luck in terms of getting leading technology,”

Amazon has launched a Picking Challenge for ICRA 2015 that challenges robot designers to use armed manipulation robots to find, and move, selected packages in an unstructured environment.

Other potential players in mass-market mobile manipulators include Rethink (imagine a mobile Baxter) and Harvest Automation, whose HV100 bot pushes and carries plants and trees in nurseries, says Kara.

ABI: Home and lawn care leads consumer robot apps Linux appears to be on the rise in robotics, says Kara, although he notes that ABI Research has yet to do an in-depth study of OS market share in robotics.

The fastest growing robot category in the non-industrial market, however, is home and lawn care, where robots like the Roomba don’t usually require an advanced processor or OS.

A Feb. 10 study from ABI projects that the home and lawn care market will surpass $2.9 billion by 2019, up from $1.2 billion in 2014, with the number of units increasing from 3.4 million to 7 million during that period.

By 2019, commercial products such as agricultural drones, will dominate the small UAV market with $5.1 billion in revenues, which will be 2.3 times larger than the military/civil market, and five times more than the prosumer/hobby market.

In the personal robot space, Kara is intrigued by the new social robots coming out with advanced natural language processing and contextual aware AI, most of which run Linux.

Fetch Robotics Secures $3M Funding From O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and Shasta Ventures

Fetch Robotics today announced that it has raised $3 million in Series A financing from O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV) and Shasta Ventures.

The robots will provide solutions for the logistics and light industrial markets, as well as for other human-robot collaboration opportunities.

All told, Melonee has nearly 15 years working in both entrepreneurial and engineering roles in the robotics industry, on both robotic hardware and software.

They have both the entrepreneurial and technical know-how in order to solve some pressing problems in the world of logistics and light industry.” Bryce

The implications to the logistics industry given this trend are substantial and my team and I look forward to helping businesses address those challenges.” Melonee

More Industrial Automation, Robots and Unmanned Vehicles Resources

Because of the continued growth of e-commerce and consumer expectations of an on-demand economy, warehouses need to move inventory in and out of their facility faster than ever before.

Many approaches to increasing throughput through automation are quite expensive and take extensive deployment and setup time, not to mention staff training.

Fetch has worked very hard to make our material handling robots not only easy for warehouse associates to operate but also for warehouse operators to set up and reconfigure with limited to no assistance from us.

It’s not just the cost of the material but also the expense of people dealing with an out-of-process fix, plus the potential added cost of expedited freight.

As one customer stated: “For all 1,000 kilometers that the robots have traversed our warehouse floor in the past six months, that’s 1,000 kilometers that our workershaven’thad to spend time transporting items.”

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