Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

Robotics roundup

Robotics took a small step into the wild world of SPACs this week, as Berkshire Grey announced its plan to go public by Q2. Setting aside some of the bigger issues with using the reverse merger route we’ve discussed plenty, BG is an ideal candidate for this next major step for a number of reasons.

First, the company’s got a track record and a ton of interest. I visited their HQ early last year, before the country shut down. Their plans were already fairly aggressive, with the wind of a recently raised $263 million Series B at their back. Retailers everywhere are already looking to automation as a way of staying competitive with the ominous monolith that is Amazon.

The mega-retailer has already acquired and deployed a ton of robots in fulfillment centers across the world. The latest number I’ve seen is 200,000. That comes from early 2020, so the number has no doubt increased since then. As Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk told me the other week, “There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.” As with so many things these days, it’s Amazon versus the world.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

Beyond its knack for raising money by the boatload, Berkshire Grey is the company you go to when you’re looking to automate a factory from the ground, up. The company says current warehouse automation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%. It’s a figure I’ve seen tossed around before, and certainly points to a ton of opportunity. BG’s offering isn’t lights-out automation, but it’s a pretty full-feature solution.

Locus, which just raised a healthy $150M Series E, represents a different end of the spectrum. Similar to offerings from companies like Fetch, it offers a more plug-and-play approach to automation. The lowered barrier of entry means a far less costly on-ramp. It also means you don’t have to shut down your warehouses for an extended period to implement the tech. It’s a more workable solution for situations with contract-based clients or temporary seasonal needs.

The company uses a RaaS (robot-as-a-service) model to deploy its technology. That’s something you’re going to be hearing more and more of around the industry. Like the HaaS (the “h” being hardware) model, the company essentially rents out these super-pricey machines, rather than selling them outright. It’s another way to lower the barrier of entry, and it gives the robotics companies the opportunity to offer continuous service upgrades.

Image Credits: Future Acres

It’s a model Future Acres, a Southern Californian agtech startup, is exploring as it comes out of stealth. Things are still early days for the company, which spun out of Wavemaker Partners (which also developed food service robotics company Miso). Among other things, the company is looking toward a crowdfunded raise by way of SeedInvest. I’ve not seen a lot of robotics companies take that route, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Like logistics, agtech is shaping up to be a pretty massive category for robotics investments. FarmWise was ahead of that curve, announcing a $14.5 million round back in 2019 (bringing its total to north of $20 million). This week the Bay Area startup added crop dusting functionality to its weed-pulling robot.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance understandably grabbed the biggest robotics headlines of the week. Landing with a parachute sporting the JPL motto, “Dare mighty things,” the rover sent back some of the best and most stunning images of Mars to date.

MSCHF’s livestream, on the other hand, was a bit more spotty. But aside from a fair number of interruptions with the feed, I suspect the company’s 40th drop went about as well as it could have hoped. Prior to announcing that it would mount a remote-control paintball gun to the back of Spot, Boston Dynamics issued a statement condemning the move:

Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

Image Credits: MSCHF

MSCHF seemed to bask in the attention, even before its name was revealed to the public. At the very least, the stunt was a success from the standpoint of having ignited a conversation about the future of robotics. Boston Dynamics intrinsically understands that its robots sometimes freak people out — it’s a big part of the reason we get viral videos from the company, like the recent one featuring various robots dancing to The Contours.

Among other things, the company is pushing back against the dystopian optics of shows like Black Mirror. Of course, a paintball gun isn’t a weapon, per say. But for the moment, optics are also important. A rep from the company told me, “I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house. Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale.”

The ACLU notably raised concern last year after footage from one of our events featuring Spot being used in the field by the Massachusetts police made the rounds. This week, the NYPD deployed a Spot robot yet again — this time at the scene of a home invasion in the Bronx (not to mention a new paint job and the name “Digidog” for some reason). Your own interpretation of those particular optics will likely depend on, among other things, your feelings about cops.

Certainly police departments have utilized robotics for decades for bomb disposal. It’s true that Boston Dynamics (along with much of the robotics industry) got early funding from DARPA. Spot in its current form isn’t much as far as war machines go, but I think these are important conversations to have at this stage in robotic evolution. Certainly there are military drones in the world, and have been for more than a decade.

That’s an important ethical conversation. As is the responsibility of robotics manufacturers once their machines are out in the world. Boston Dynamics does due diligence when selling its robots, but does it continue to be responsible for them once it no longer owns them? That’s certainly not a question we’re going to answer this week.

Robotics company Berkshire Grey to go public via SPAC

As far as fundraising goes, Berkshire Grey is in pretty good shape. When I visited its Massachusetts headquarters last year, following a massive $263 million Series B, the company discussed some pretty aggressive growth plans. Mind you, that was before the pandemic has really touched down in the U.S. in a meaningful way.

If anything, Covid-19 has accelerated interest in automation, as companies look to safeguard themselves from the inevitable effects of future pandemics. Today, Berkshire Gray announced its intention to become the latest tech company to go public by way of SPAC. The deal, which finds its merging with Revolution Acceleration Acquisition, could value the company at up to $2.7 billion.

In a release tied to the news, BG cites a 5% current warehouse automation figure – a number I’ve heard tossed around a lot in relation to these deals. It certainly points big potential for growth among retailers looking to streamline fulfillment, logistics and the like. For many, it’s as simple as finding a way to stay competitive with the likes of Amazon, which has massively bolstered its own robotics efforts through acquisitions like Kiva Systems.

BG offers a kind of ground-up solution for close to full automation. The technology separates it from more plug and play automation solutions like Locus and Fetch Robotics. Their offerings are more focused on automating companies faster and more cheaply. BG’s ecosystem includes a variety of different robotics, including picking, gripping and image sensing, with north of 300 patents in the space.

“Consumer expectations have changed, putting more pressure on supply chain operations to get the right goods to the right places at the right times, as efficiently as possible,” CEO Tom Wagner said in a release tied to the news. “Over the last 12 months the pandemic amplified the already high pressure to transform, so today it is no longer a question of if companies might transform but how quickly. We are incredibly excited about this transaction, which will enable Berkshire Grey to accelerate growth and provide new and existing customers with our leading robotics solutions.”

The deal would bring up up to $413 million in cash for the company. It says it plans to use the funding to address a backlog of customers and build out an international presence. It’s expected to close in Q2.

Symbio is working with Toyota and Nissan to increase robotic assembly efficiency

Bay Area-based AI startup Symbio today announced its “official launch.” Backed by a total of $30 million in funding, the company has struck deals with both Nissan and Toyota to implement its software in U.S.-based factories.

The company says its SymbioDCS technology is capable of dramatically increasing automation with factory robots on the assembly line.

“To the end customer, the proposition is pretty straightforward,” CEO and co-founder Max Reynolds tells TechCrunch. “We’re improving the efficiency of their automation. The high-level goal is to increase the capacity of the factory and enable them to build more product, more quickly, more flexibly. “

The company closed a $15 million Series B in December of last year. That adds to a $12 million Series A in 2018, $2.5 million seed two years prior and a $500,000 pre-seed. This latest round was led by ACME Capital, joining existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Eclipse Ventures and The House Fund.

Image Credits: Symbio

“Instead of exclusively providing automation solutions, Symbio is also designing the tools that enable the developers and domain experts working in manufacturing to create their own automation solutions and easily adapt them to new tasks,” UC Berkeley professor Anca Dragan said in a statement tied to the news. “To do this, they are building products that leverage AI strengths and human insight in a symbiotic way.”

Founded in 2014, the company employs around 40, mostly engineers, largely based in California. Reynolds explains that the current level of automated manufacturing in automotive is actually far lower than one might expect. “Assembly is less than 5% automated, across the board,” he says. “Even in this core vertical, there’s a ton of headroom and opportunity for growth.”

Future Acres launches with the arrival of crop-transporting robot, Carry

When people ask me which robotics categories are poised for the biggest growth, I often point to agriculture. The technology already has a strong foothold in places like warehouse and logistics, but it’s impossible to look at the American – and global – farming community and not see a lot of potential for human-assisted automation.

The category still seems fairly wide open — but not for lack of interest. There are a number of companies both large and small carving out niches in the category. For now, at least, it seems there’s room for a number of different players. After all, needs vary greatly from farm to farm and crop to crop.

Santa Monica-based Future Acres is launching today, with plans to tackle grape picking. An outgrowth of Wavemaker Partners — the same firm that gave the world burger-flipping Miso Robotics — the startup is also announce its first robot, Carry.

Image Credits: Future Acres

“We see Carry as a kind of harvesting sidekick for workers. It’s an autonomous harvesting companion,” CEO Suma Reddy tells TechCrunch. “What it can do in the real world is transport up to 500 lbs. of crops in all terrain and all weather. It can increase production efficiency by up to 80%, which means it pays for itself in only 80 days.”

Carry relies on AI to transport hand-picked crops, working alongside humans rather than attempting to replace the delicate picking process outright. The company is expecting that farms will purchase multiple machines that can work in tandem to speed up their process and help reduce the human strain of moving the crops around manually.

Image Credits: Future Acres

The company is still in early stages, having developed a prototype of Carry. It’s also exploring some partnerships for development. The systems would run $10,000-$15,000 up front, though the company says it’s looking at a RaaS (robotics as a service) model, as a way to defer that cost.

Interest in agricultural robotics has only increased during the pandemic, amid health concerns and labor issues. The company is building on that interest by launching a campaign on SeedInvest, in hopes of raising $3 million, in addition to funding already provided by Wavemaker.

Watch Perseverance’s harrowing descent to the surface of Mars

NASA has released video taken by the Perseverance landing module and rover showing the famous “seven minutes of terror” in a bracing first-person perspective. The images sent back Friday were just a teaser — this is the full experience, and the first video of a Mars landing ever captured.

A full description of the rover’s descent and mission can be found here, but briefly stated here’s what happened:

After decelerating in the atmosphere interplanetary velocity, the heat shield is jettisoned and the parachute deployed. Beneath the heat shield are a number of cameras and instruments, which scanned the landscape to find a good landing spot. At a certain altitude and speed the parachute is detached and the “jetpack” lower stage takes over, using rockets to maneuver towards the landing area. At about 70 feet above the surface the “skycrane” dangles the rover itself out of the lander and softly plops it down on the ground before the jetpack flies off to crash at a safe distance.

Diagram showing the various parts of the Perseverance landing process

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The whole process takes about seven minutes, the last few seconds of which which are an especially white-knuckle ride.

While previous rovers sent back lots of telemetry and some imagery, this level of visual documentation is a first. Even Insight, launched in 2018, wasn’t able to send back this kind of footage.

“This is the first time we’ve actually been able to capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars,” said Mike Watkins, head of JPL, at a press conference. “These are really amazing videos, we all binge watched them over the weekend if you can call a one minute video binge watching. We will learn something by looking at the performance of the vehicle in these videos but a lot of it is also to bring you along on our journey.”

The team discussed the entry, descent, and landing camera system or EDL cams, which were made both to monitor how the process went and to provide the visceral experience that the whole team craved.

“I don’t know about you, but it is unlikely at this point in my career that I will pilot a spacecraft down to the surface of Mars,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager of Perseverance at JPL. “But when you see this imagery I think you will feel like you are getting a glimpse into what it would be like to land successfully in Jezero crater with perseverance.”

There were upward-facing cameras on the capsule, jetpack, and rover, and downward-facing cameras on the latter two as well, providing shots in both directions for practically the whole process. This image of the heat shield falling away feels iconic already – revealing the desert landscape of Mars much like film we’ve seen of Apollo landings on the Moon:

Animated image of Perseverance jettisoning its heat shield as it descends toward Mars.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

You can see the whole thing below:

Over 30 gigabytes of imagery were captured of the descent even though one of the cameras failed when the parachute deployed. Sending data back (via Mars orbiters overhead) is a slow process at first, about a 2 megabit connection (still incredibly fast compared with old systems) that slowly gets stepped up to multiples of that.

Practically every frame of the video offers new information about the process of landing on Mars — for instance, one of the springs used to eject the heat shield can be seen to have disconnected, though it didn’t affect the process. All the footage has been and no doubt will continue to be scrutinized for other insights.

In addition to these amazing landing videos, Perseverance has sent back a number of full-color images taken by its navigation cameras, though not all of its systems are up and running yet. The team stitched together the first images of Perseverance inspecting itself and its surroundings to form this panorama:

Panoramic image of the Martian landscape and Perseverance rover.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ll have many, many more images soon as the team processes and uploads them.

As a parting “gift,” the team provided the remarkable first sound recording from the surface of Mars; they hoped that this would both provide new insights and also let anyone who can’t see the images experience the landing in a different way.

The EDL system included a microphone to capture the sound of the landing, but sadly didn’t work during the descent. It is, however, working perfectly well on the surface and has now captured the ambience of the Red Planet — and while the sound of a gust of wind may not be particularly alien, it’s incredible to think that this truly is wind blowing across another world.

MSCHF mounted a remote-control paintball gun to Spot

I’ve piloted Spot a number of ways in a number of different settings. I had the chance to control the robot for the first time at one of our Robotics events a number of years back, and drove one around an obstacle course at Boston Dynamics’ headquarters. More recently, I navigated it via web browser as a test of the robot’s new remote interface.

But a recent test drive was different. For one thing, it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Boston Dynamics. Of course, the highly sophisticated quadrupedal robot has been out in the world for a while, and a few enterprising souls have begun to offer a remote Spot walking experience through the streets of San Francisco.

The latest project form MSCHF isn’t that. That should come as no surprise, of course. The Brooklyn-based company is never that straightforward. It’s the same organization that gave us the “pirate radio” streaming service All The Streams.FM and that wild Amazon Echo ultrasonic jammer. More than anything, their events are comments — on privacy, on consumerism or this case, a kind of dystopian foreshadowing of what robotics might become.

Like the rest of the world, the company was fascinated when Boston Dynamics put Spot up for sale — but unlike most of us, MSCHF actually managed to cobble together $75,000 to buy one.

And then it mounted a paintball gun to its back.

Image Credits: MSCHF

Starting Wednesday, users will be able to pilot a Spot unit through MSCHF’s site, and fire off a paintball gun in a closed setting. The company calls it “Spot’s Rampage.”

“The stream will start Wednesday at 1 PM EST,” MSCHF’s Daniel Greenberg told TechCrunch. “We will have a four-camera livestream going and as long as you’re on the site on your phone, you will have an equal chance of being able to control Spot, and every two minutes the driver will change. It should go for a few hours.”

Ahead of the launch of Spot’s web portal, the company built an API to remotely control both Spot’s SDK and the paintball gun mounted to the robot’s back. It’s a setup Boston Dynamics isn’t particularly thrilled with. Understandably so. For a company that has long been dealing with the blowback of cautionary science fiction like Black Mirror, the optics of a third-party mounting a gun — even one that shoots paint — are less than ideal.

Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch that it was interested in working with the company early on.

“They came to us with the idea that they were going to do a creative project with Spot,” a rep told TechCrunch. “They’re a creative group of guys, who have done a bunch of creative things. In our conversations, we said that if you want to cooperate with us, we want to make it clear that the robots will not be used in any way that hurts people.”

Boston Dynamics balked when paintball gun entered the conversation. On Friday, it issued the following statement through Twitter:

Today we learned that an art group is planning a spectacle to draw attention to a provocative use of our industrial robot, Spot. To be clear, we condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

In addition, all buyers must agree to our Terms and Conditions of Sale, which state that our products must be used in compliance with the law, and cannot be used to harm or intimidate people or animals. Any violation of our Terms of Sale will automatically void the product’s warranty and prevent the robot from being updated, serviced, repaired or replaced. Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives. This art, however, fundamentally misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.

The statement is in line with the language in Spot’s contract, which prohibits using the robot to do anything illegal, or to intimidate or harm people. The company says it does additional “due diligence” with potential customers, including background checks.

Image Credits: MSCHF

The application is something of a gray area where Boston Dynamics is concerned. MSCHF approached the robotics company with its idea and Boston Dynamics balked, believing it wasn’t in-line with the stated mission for the quadrupedal robots. The official Spot’s Rampage site notes:

We talked with Boston Dynamics and they HATED [emphasis theirs] this idea. They said they would give us another TWO Spots for FREE if we took the gun off. That just made us want to do this even more and if our Spot stops working just know they have a backdoor override built into each and every one of these little robots.

Boston Dynamics says the company’s “understanding of the interaction” is “inaccurate.”

“We get approached by marketing opportunities all the time to create a really fantastic and compelling experience,” the company adds. “Selling one robot is not that interesting. Creating an amazing interactive experience is really compelling for us. One of the things they pitched to us was an interactive idea. It’s an expensive robot and they wanted to create an interactive experience where anybody can control the robot. We thought that was super cool and compelling.”

Boston Dynamics says it pitched the idea of using Spot’s robot arm to paint the physical space with a brush, rather than using the paintball gun. The company also offered to send technicians to the site to help maintain the robot during the stream, along with a few models as back up.

MSCHF’s inclusion of the paintball gun is, ultimately, about more than simply painting the canvas. The image of the robot with a gun — even one that only shoots paint — is menacing. And that’s kind of the point.

“It’s easy to look at these robots dance and cavort and see them as cute semi-sentient little friends,” says Greenberg. “They’re endearing when they mess up and fall over. We’ve adopted the trappings of that scenario by creating a ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ scenario. Still, it’s worth remembering the big versions of Spot [Big Dog] were explicitly military mules, and that their public deployments tend to be by city agencies and law enforcement. At the end of the day, Spot is a terrestrial UAV – when you get to drive this robot and experience the thrill of pulling the trigger your adrenaline spikes — but, we hope, a few minutes later you feel a distinct chill. Anyone in their right mind knows these little cuties will kill people sooner or later.”

While early Boston Dynamics robots were, indeed, funded by DARPA for use as transport vehicles, the company is quick to distance itself from even the remotest hint of ominous imagery. Boston Dynamics came under fire from the ACLU after showcasing footage of a Spot being used in Massachusetts State police drills onstage at a TechCrunch robotics event.

Image Credits: MSCHF

The company told TechCrunch at the time:

Right now we’re at a scale where we can pick and choose the partners we engage with and make sure that they have a similar deployment and a vision for how robots are used. For example, not using robots in a way that would physically harm or intimidate people. But also have a realistic expectation for what a robot can and cannot do.

As MSCHF prepares to launch its event, the company is echoing those sentiments.

“I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house,” Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch. “Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale. Had this concept been brought to us while we were in the initial sales discussions, we probably would have said, ‘there’s Arduino quadruped that you could easily put this activation together. Go do that. This isn’t representative of how we view our technology being used.’ ”

Image Credits: MSCHF

But the question of whether the company can put the toothpaste back in the tube remains. In cases of violations of the Terms of Service, the company can opt not to renew the license, which effectively deactivates it the next time a firmware update is due. Other cases could essentially void the warranty, meaning the company won’t service it.

A paintball gun being fired in a closed space likely doesn’t fall under harm, intimidation or illegal activity, however. So it’s not entirely clear whether Boston Dynamics has a direct course of action in this case.

“This is something we’re evaluating now, around this particular use case,” Boston Dynamics says. “We do have other terms of service in there, regarding modification of the robot in a way that makes it unsafe. We’re trying to understand what the implications are.”

Boston Dynamics (whose sale to Hyundai is expected to close in June) has devoted a good deal of time to showcasing the various tasks the robot can perform, from routine inspections at hazard sites to the complex dance moves it’s performed in a recent viral video. MSCHF’s primary — and, really, only — use is an interactive art piece.

“To be honest, we don’t have any further plans [for the robot],” says Greenberg. “I know we won’t do another drop with it as we do not do repeats so we will just have to get really creative. Maybe a waking cup holder.”

Dizzying view of Perseverance mid-descent makes its ‘7 minutes of terror’ feel very real

The Perseverance Mars rover landed safely yesterday, but only after a series of complex maneuvers as it descended at high speed through the atmosphere, known by the team as the “seven minutes of terror.” NASA has just shared a hair-raising image of the rover as it dangled from its jetpack above the Martian landscape, making that terror a lot easier to understand.

Published with others to the rover’s Twitter account (as always, in the first person), the image is among the first sent back from the rover; black-and-white shots from its navigation cameras appeared almost instantly after landing, but this is the first time we’ve seen the rover — or anything, really — from this perspective.

The image was taken by cameras on the descent stage or “jetpack,” a rocket-powered descent module that took over once the craft had sufficiently slowed via both atmospheric friction and its parachute. Once the heat shield was jettisoned, Perseverance scanned the landscape for a safe landing location, and once that was found, the jetpack’s job was to fly it there.

Perseverance rover and its spacecraft in an exploded view showing its several main components.

The image at the top of the story was taken by the descent stage’s “down-look cameras.” Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it was about 70 feet above the landing spot, the jetpack would have deployed the “sky crane,” a set of cables that would lower the rover to the ground from a distance that safely allowed the jetpack to rocket itself off to a crash landing far away.

The image at top was taken just moments before landing — it’s a bit hard to tell whether those swirls in the Martian soil are hundreds, dozens or just a handful of feet below, but follow-up images made it clear that the rocks you can see are pebbles, not boulders.

Photo of the Mars rover Perseverance's wheel and rocks on the surface.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The images are a reminder that the processes we see only third-hand as observers of an HQ tracking telemetry data sent millions of miles from Mars are in fact very physical, fast and occasionally brutal things. Seeing such an investment of time and passion dangling from cords above a distant planet after a descent that started at 5 kilometers per second, and required about a hundred different things to go right or else end up just another crater on Mars… it’s sobering and inspiring.

That said, that first person perspective may not even be the most impressive shot of the descent. Shortly after releasing that, NASA published an astonishing image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which managed to capture Perseverance mid-fall under its parachute:

Photo taken from 700km away by the Mars reconnaissance Orbiter of the Perseverance rover descending under its parachute.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Keep in mind that MRO was 700 km away, and traveling at over 3 km/second at the time this shot was taken. “The extreme distance and high speeds of the two spacecraft were challenging conditions that required precise timing and for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to both pitch upward and roll hard to the left so that Perseverance was viewable by HiRISE at just the right moment,” NASA wrote in the description of the photo.

Chances are we’re going to be treated to a fuller picture of the “seven minutes of terror” soon, once NASA collects enough imagery from Perseverance, but for now the images above serve as reminders of the ingenuity and skill of the team there, and perhaps a sense of wonder and awe at the capabilities of science and engineering.

Locus Robotics has raised a $150M Series E

Massachusetts-based Locus Robotics today announced a $150 million Series E. The round, led by Tiger Global Management and Bond, brings the firm’s total to around $250 to date, and values the robotics company at $1 billion. Locus is notable for a more modular and flexible solution for automating warehouses than many of its competitors (see: Berkshire Grey). The company essentially leases out robotic fleet for organizes looking to automate logistics.

“We can change the wings on the plane while it’s flying,” CEO Rick Faulk tells TechCrunch. Basically no one else can do that. Companies want flexible automation. They don’t want to bolt anything to the floor. If you’re a third-party logistics company and you have a two, three, four-year contract, the last thing you want to do is invest $25-$50 million to buy a massive solution, bolt it to the floor and be locked into all of this upfront expense.”

The company currently has some 4,000 robots deployed across 80 sites. Roughly 80% of its deployments are in the U.S., with the remaining 20% in Europe. Part of this massive funding round will go toward expanding international operations, including a bigger push into the EU, as well as the APAC region, where it presently doesn’t have much of a footprint.

The company will also be investing in R&D, sales and marketing and increasing its current headcount of 165 by 75 in the coming year.

The pandemic is clearly a driver in interest around this brand of automation, with more companies looking toward robotics for help.

“COVID has put a spike in the growth of online ordering, clearly, and that spike is probably a four to five year jump,” says Faulk. “If you look at the trend of e-commerce, it’s been on a steady upward tick. It was about 11% last year and COVID put a spike up to 16/17%. We think that genie’s out of the bottle, and it’s not going back any time soon.”

The funding round also points to a company that seemingly has no desire to be acquired by a larger name, akin to Kiva Systems’ transformation into Amazon Robotics.

“We have no interest in being acquired,” the CEO says. “We think we can build the most and greatest value by operating independently. There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.”