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Build and tear down • TechCrunch

I managed to squeeze the remaining remnants of CES 2023 in last week’s Actuator. The good news is that things are starting to pick up again like clockwork. If you’ve been emailing me about work issues over the past week, I apologize for the delay – I’ve been out of one skillet and into the next. Anecdotally, I will say this is a net positive. Robotics news has had a brief hiatus over the holiday season, but things are moving fast and furious again.

It’s not all good news, of course. The calendar was reset a few weeks ago, but unfortunately all the economic doom and gloom is not getting a fresh start with it. This year will be a reckoning. As ominous as it sounds, this isn’t entirely good or bad, ghost. It’s more that, after two years of relentless optimism for robotics and automation, many are paying the bill.

This will be a sink or swim year for many. As VC becomes harder to find, runways suddenly get shorter, and to stretch the metaphor enough, no one wants to deal with a shrinking runway on takeoff. If you can’t land that $20 million round you were counting on, you’re suddenly faced with some extremely tough decisions. That could take the form of a pivot, a serious tightening of the belt (fired, thinning of the roadmap), exploring a sell-off, or some other worst-case scenario.

All of the above options involve an existential change for everyone involved. Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some well-positioned companies will fare better, as clear leaders in the category. It could mean taking over a smaller company, combining teams and coming out stronger. Heck, even those who’ve had to take the utterly unfortunate (and life-changing) action of layoffs can eventually come out the other side with a kind of newfound sense of focus.

wendy brown white / Intrinsic

Image Credits: Intrinsic

All of this is top of mind in part because of the recent Intrinsic news, that only missed the deadline for last week’s newsletter. It’s a weird one. I hope to catch up with the Alphabet team soon to discuss a series of events that will include a number of acquisitions followed by a 20% headcount cut, which equates to about 40 people. I am certainly aware that the timeline for acquisitions and personnel decisions is not always ideal.

I am always acutely aware of how big companies like Alphabet make these kinds of decisions for their bottom line. The fact is, it can be much more difficult to justify long-term commitments, especially those that are not considered essential to the company’s core mission. Of course, none of this should be taken as a repudiation of Intrinsic’s mission – the work it and other companies are doing on robotics software is key to the future of industrial deployment. If I had to make a guess (as I’m contractually obligated to do), I’d say it’s more of an Alphabet reprioritization.

An Intrinsic spokesperson told TechCrunch:

Intrinsic leadership has made the difficult decision to lay off several of our team members. We communicated the news directly to them. We fully recognize how difficult this will be and provide as much proactive support as possible. This decision was made in light of shifts in prioritization and our longer-term strategic direction. It will ensure that Intrinsic can continue to allocate resources to our highest priority initiatives, such as building our software and AI platform, integrating the recent strategic acquisitions of Vicarious and OSRC (Open Robotics commercial arm) and operating with key industrial partners. While incredibly difficult to do, we believe this decision is necessary to continue our mission.

I have no doubt that this was a difficult decision. Among other things, it is not the kind of confidence that a young company hopes for. But Intrinsic has a lot of smart people on board – especially after those acquisitions – and despite the downsizing, Alphabet of course has huge resources if and when it turns that tap back on.

The robot Atlas from Boston Dynamics jumps

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics (Image has been modified)

The other news I wanted to cover from above was yesterday’s Boston Dynamics news. One thing’s for sure: the Massachusetts company makes a mean video. A few were dropped this week to demonstrate new grippers for Atlas. The humanoid robot uses its new appendages to lend a hand on a makeshift construction site. Here’s a breakdown of BD:

  • Atlas’s ability to pick up and move objects of various sizes, materials, and weights (the wooden plank and tool bag) while remaining balanced is made possible by enhanced locomotion and sensing capabilities. For this video, the team installed utility claw grippers with one fixed finger and one moving finger. These simple grabs are designed for heavy lifting tasks and first appeared in the Samuel Adams [Super Bowl] commercial in which Atlas held a barrel over his head.
  • Improved controls to jump 180 degrees while holding the wooden board.
  • Do a spinning jump while throwing the tool bag. To accomplish this task, the team extended the model predictive controller (MPC) to view the coupled motion of both the robot and the object together.
  • Pushing the wooden box off the platform, which meant Atlas had to generate enough force to drop the box without sending himself off the platform.
  • Atlas’ closing move, an inverted 540-degree, multi-axis flip, adds a symmetry to the robot’s movement, making it a much more difficult skill than previously performed parkour.

I would caution that nothing Boston Dynamics shows should be read as anything other than a proof of concept. This is doubly the case with Atlas, a research robot in heart and soul. The caveat here, of course, is that the new(ish) owner, Hyundai, has been all aggressive about commercializing these products. Imagine helping some of the more prolific Atlas descendants in their car factories, for example, doesn’t seem far out of the realm of possibility.

Atlas certainly has a significant head start over Tesla’s promised (threatened?) all-purpose humanoid. It remains to be seen what Figure is working on as well. I especially look forward to a renewed, lively debate about making robots in our own image.

Image of ETHZ’s tree-sampling drone in action. Image Credits: ETHZ

Here’s a nice piece from Devin about a Swiss scientists drone designed to collect “external DNA” from treetops. That means flying around to pick up evidence like skin, feathers, and detritus to determine which animals are loitering in the area. Dave here:

The drone looks a bit like a modernist lighting fixture, with a beautifully crafted wood frame and plastic shield, and strips of masking tape or “moistened cotton” on the bottom surfaces. After being guided to a generally favorable position, it hovers over a branch to be sampled and tracks any movement such as swaying or bouncing, synchronizing its approach. When it makes contact, it pushes with enough pressure to ensure that loose eDNA materials are transferred to the strips, but not so much that it pushes the branch out of the way. Essentially, it leans on the tree.

Image Credits: Sega

The German company United Robotics Group announced this last week it is acquiring Spanish mobile robotics and manipulation startup/video game hedgehog antagonizer, Robotnik Automation. URG cites the strong position of the company in markets such as Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, the US, France, Germany and Italy as an important driver for the acquisition.

Says Thomas Linkenheil, co-CEO of United Robotics:

We have been working with Robotnik as our strategic partner and I am delighted that the company is joining our group. We will benefit from 70 highly experienced robotics experts, especially in R&D and software. This investment will support us in the development of further applications for CobiotX, the third generation of robots for humans. We look forward to working with the local management team around Roberto Guzmán and Rafael López, who have led the company from the very beginning. We are confident in leveraging synergies.”

If there’s one thing we’re passionate about here at Actuator HQ, it’s leveraging synergies.

Finally, this week I’m trying to find a way to convince the T&E team to take me back to Pittsburgh for a week to visit the non-profit “Robotics Factory.” With support from CMU and the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, it’s definitely a space worth checking out over the next year.

By the official site:

The Robotics Factory, a series of robotics programs led by Innovation Works and the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, is part of the $63 million Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative. The Robotics Factory will create, accelerate and scale robotics startups in the Pittsburgh area.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Okay, back to work for me. I have a bunch of stories in the works that will pop up in future Actuators. Be the first to see them by signing up here.

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