A funny thing happened in the five years since Amazon acquired warehouse automation firm Kiva Systems for $775 million. The logistics robot market has taken off, with different competing systems shuttling inventory around to try to speed up order fulfillment. But tasks requiring manual dexterity are still hard to automate.
Now, several companies and research groups are trying to solve a longstanding problem in logistics—how to get a robot to pick up individual items from one place and put them down in another, in a fast, reliable, and adaptable way.
The question is whether the technology is ready for the market—and whether real businesses can be built on it. “Most would agree that having a gripper/arm solution that could perform even 80 percent of the flexible tasks currently handled easily by humans in pick-pack-and-ship operations is still 5 to 10 years away,” says Mick Mountz, Kiva’s co-founder and former CEO. But he adds that some companies “have identified key areas of specialization where they can gain significant traction in the market by performing a narrower set of tasks with great payback.”
One of the companies trying to do that is RightHand Robotics. The Somerville, MA-based startup said today it has raised $8 million in Series A funding led by Playground Global. That’s the hardware-focused venture fund founded by Andy Rubin, formerly of Android and Google’s robotics division. Other investors in the round include Matrix Partners, Seven Seas Partners, and Dream Incubator. RightHand says it has raised a total of $11.3 million to date.
In a prepared statement, Rubin says RightHand “has created a transformative technology combining machine learning and smart hardware to address a tremendous opportunity in the logistics industry.”
Mark Valdez, a colleague of Rubin’s at Playground Global, says in an e-mail that “RightHand’s key difference is its ability to pick a wide range of items. It’s not enough to simply build a good gripper, you need the machine intelligence to connect what you can see with what you can do.”
RightHand has come a long way in the past couple years. The company has developed a “hybrid gripper” (see photo) that uses robotic fingers and a suction cup to pick up and place anything from pill bottles to packaged food items; the system uses 3D computer vision and embedded sensors to see and feel what it’s doing. But the company’s real calling card is its software, which includes machine-learning algorithms that help the robot adapt to new objects and situations, according to RightHand.
“We’re not in the grippers business; we’re in the solutions business,” says Yaro Tenzer, one of RightHand’s co-founders. “We are focused on supply chain logistics in e-commerce and distribution.”
That means helping retailers and other businesses automate their warehouse and logistics stations, as well as making existing robotic setups smarter and more adaptable. (RightHand’s technology works with off-the-shelf robot arms.) It’s still early, and Tenzer declined to name any of the startup’s customers or partners.
RightHand got started in 2014 after its co-founders met as collaborators through a “robotic manipulation” program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The founding team comes from Harvard, Yale, and MIT. As part of the DARPA program, they developed a robotic appendage called the iHY hand, which is the ancestor of RightHand’s product.
The 20-person startup competes in a broad logistics sector that includes companies like Soft Robotics (which has its own gripper technology) and Rethink Robotics (which has robots for assembly and manufacturing tasks). Other startups with different approaches in warehouse automation are 6 River Systems, Locus Robotics, and Fetch Robotics.