OrbitFab secures National Science Foundation funding to propel its satellite refueling tech to space

On-orbit satellite refueling technology is closer than ever to a practical reality, which could help immensely with the cost and sustainability of orbital businesses. Startup OrbitFab, a 2019 TechCrunch Battlefield finalist, is one of the companies working to make orbital refueling a reality, and it just secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early stage deep tech R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further its goals.

The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible last October at Disrupt, which it now refers to as its Rapidly attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). The RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling, and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).

Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and last year it became the first ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. It’s not resting on its laurels, and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process it’s RAFTI facilitates in its own test facilities this summer.

Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel says should happen “within two years.”

“This will involve 2 satellites, our tanker, and a customer satellite, in a low LEO [low Earth orbit] docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and repeating this process as many times as we can to demonstrate our capability,” he wrote via email.

There have been a number of technical projects and demonstrations around orbital refueling, and some of the largest companies in the industry are working on the challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is aiming for simplicity, and ease of execution, along with a common standard that can be leveraged across a wide range of satellites large and small, from a range of companies. Already, OrbitFab says it’s working with a group of 30 different campaigns and organizations on making RAFTI a broadly adopted interface.

If successful, OrbitFab could underpin a future orbital commercial operating environment in which fuel isn’t nearly as much a concern when it comes to launch costs, with on-orbit roving gas stations addressing demand for spacecraft once they reach space, and paying a price for propellant that’s defrayed by common, bulk shipments instead of broken up piecemeal.

OrbitFab secures National Science Foundation funding to propel its satellite refueling tech to space

On-orbit satellite refueling technology is closer than ever to a practical reality, which could help immensely with the cost and sustainability of orbital businesses. Startup OrbitFab, a 2019 TechCrunch Battlefield finalist, is one of the companies working to make orbital refueling a reality, and it just secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early stage deep tech R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further its goals.

The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible last October at Disrupt, which it now refers to as its Rapidly attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). The RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling, and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).

Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and last year it became the first ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. It’s not resting on its laurels, and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process it’s RAFTI facilitates in its own test facilities this summer.

Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel says should happen “within two years.”

“This will involve 2 satellites, our tanker, and a customer satellite, in a low LEO [low Earth orbit] docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and repeating this process as many times as we can to demonstrate our capability,” he wrote via email.

There have been a number of technical projects and demonstrations around orbital refueling, and some of the largest companies in the industry are working on the challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is aiming for simplicity, and ease of execution, along with a common standard that can be leveraged across a wide range of satellites large and small, from a range of companies. Already, OrbitFab says it’s working with a group of 30 different campaigns and organizations on making RAFTI a broadly adopted interface.

If successful, OrbitFab could underpin a future orbital commercial operating environment in which fuel isn’t nearly as much a concern when it comes to launch costs, with on-orbit roving gas stations addressing demand for spacecraft once they reach space, and paying a price for propellant that’s defrayed by common, bulk shipments instead of broken up piecemeal.

‘It’s part of my job as a VC to remain calm,’ says Anorak’s Greg Castle

As the venture landscape adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic and seismic shifts in public markets, early-stage VCs are reassessing which bets they’re making, along with questions they’re asking of founders who are exploring bleeding-edge technology.

Anorak Ventures is a small seed-investment firm that bets on emerging tech like AR/VR, machine learning and robotics. I recently hopped on a Zoom call with founder Greg Castle to talk about what he’s seen recently in seed investing and how the sector is responding to the crisis. Castle was an early investor in Oculus; his other bets at Anorak include Against Gravity, 6D.ai and Anduril.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: Has this pandemic affected the types of companies that you’re looking at?

Greg Castle: From my experience as an investor thus far, being reactive as an investor and looking at “hot” areas has a lot of pitfalls to be mindful of. I think a lot of the areas that excite me as an investor could benefit from what’s going on here, those areas including robotics, automation, immersive entertainment and immersive computing.

Just generally, do you feel like a recession is more likely to negatively impact emerging tech more so than other areas?

UPS partners with Wingcopter to develop new multipurpose drone delivery fleet

UPS is working with German startup Wingcopter to develop a new type of delivery drone, to be used for the logistics company’s growing commercial drone deliver efforts both in the U.S. and globally. Wingcopter has already designed an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that have ranges of up to 75 miles, and can achieve speeds as high as 150 miles per hour, in conditions include windspeeds of up to 45 miles per hour.

The two originally entered into a partnership last December, and Wingcopter will be working closely with UPS’ Flight Forward subsidiary, the dedicated drone delivery unit that UPS developed last year in July to house its commercial drone delivery program. In October, Flight Forward received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to effectively operate a full-scale ‘drone airline’ at scale for the purpose of package delivery.

Wingcopter has already demonstrated how its drones could operate in commercial settings, including during a demonstration with Merck earlier this year that saw its autonomous eVTOLs carry small packages between the drug company’s various office locations in Darmstadt in Germany. It’s also used its aircraft to deliver critical medical supplies and life-saving equipment to hard to reach areas, including through partnerships with UNICEF and other relief organizations.

This collaboration will begin with efforts on behalf of both companies to certify Wingcopter’s aircraft for use in making commercial delivery in the U.S., which will pave the way for collaborative development of additional types of aircraft that will serve a variety of needs, including in industries ranging from healthcare, to hospitality, to retail and more.

Wingcopter’s main advantage is a design that allows it to switch from hovering and vertical lift, to a low-noise forward flight mode, which is better suited to use over populated areas. It manages this using a tilt-rotor design, which has the added benefit of making it more stable in difficult weather conditions, including rain and high winds.

Stuart Russell on how to make AI ‘human-compatible’

In a career spanning several decades, artificial intelligence researcher and professor Stuart Russell has contributed extensive knowledge on the subject, including foundational textbooks. He joined us onstage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI to discuss the threat he perceives from AI, and his book, which proposes a novel solution.

Russell’s thesis, which he develops in “Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control,” is that the field of AI has been developed on the false premise that we can successfully define the goals toward which these systems work, and the result is that the more powerful they are, the worse they are capable of. No one really thinks a paperclip-making AI will consume the Earth to maximize production, but a crime-prevention algorithm could very easily take badly constructed data and objectives and turn them into recommendations that cause real harm.

The solution, Russell suggests, is to create systems that aren’t so sure of themselves — essentially, knowing what they don’t or can’t know and looking to humans to find out.

The interview has been lightly edited. My remarks, though largely irrelevant, are retained for context.

TechCrunch: Well, thanks for joining us here today. You’ve written a book. Congratulations on it. In fact, you’ve actually, you’ve been an AI researcher and author, teacher for a long time. You’ve seen this, the field of AI sort of graduated from a niche field that academics were working in to a global priority in private industry. But I was a little surprised by the thesis of your book; do you really think that the current approach to AI is sort of fundamentally mistaken?

Stuart Russell: So let me take you back a bit, to even before I started doing AI. So, Alan Turing, who, as you all know, is the father of computer science — that’s why we’re here — he wrote a very famous paper in 1950 called “Computing Machinery and Mind,” that’s where the Turing test comes from. He laid out a lot of different subfields of AI, he proposed that we would need to use machine learning to create sufficiently intelligent programs.

Hospital droid Diligent Robotics raises $10M to assist nurses

28% of a nurse’s time is wasted on low-skilled tasks like fetching medical tools. We need them focused on the complex and compassionate work of treating patients, especially amid the coronavirus outbreak. Diligent Robotics wants to give them a helper droid that can run errands for them around the hospital. The startup’s bot Moxi is equipped with a flexible arm, gripper hand, and full mobility so it can hunt down lightweight medical resources, navigate a clinic’s hallways, and drop them off for the nurse.

With the world facing a critical shortage of medical care professionals, Moxi could help health care centers use their staffs as efficiently as possible. And since robots can’t be infected by COVID-19, they’re one less potential carrier interacting with vulnerable populations.

Today, Diligent Robotics announces its $10 million Series A that will help it scale up to deliver “more robots to more hospitals” CEO Andrea Thomaz tells me. “We’ve been designing our product, Moxi, side by side with hospital customers because we don’t just want to give them an automation solution for their materials management problems. We want to give them a robot that frontline staff are delighted to work with and feels like a part of the team.”

The round led by DNX Ventures brings Diligent Robotics to $15.75 million in total funding that’s propelled it to the fifth generation of its Moxi robot. It currently has two deployed in Dallas, TX but is already working with two of the three top hospital networks in the U.S. ““As the current pandemic and circumstance has shown, the real heroes are our healthcare providers” says Q Motiwala, partner at DNX Ventures. The new cash from DNX, True Ventures, Ubiquity Ventures, Next Coast Ventures, Grit Ventures, E14 Fund, and Promus Ventures will help Diligent Robotics expand Moxi’s use cases and seamlessly complement nurses’ workflows to help alleviate the talent crunch.

Thomaz came up with the idea for a hospital droid after doing her Ph.D. in social robotics at the MIT Media lab. Her co-founder and CTO Vivien Chu had done a masters at UPenn on how to give robots a sense of touch, and then came to work with Thomaz at Georgia Tech. They were inspired by a study revealing how nurses spent so much time acting as hosptial gofers, so in 2016 they applied for and won a National Science Foundation grant of $750,000 that funded a six-month sprint to build a prototype of Moxi.

Since then, 18-person Diligent Robotics has worked with hundreds of nurses to learn about exactly what they need from an autonomous assistant.Today you will go about your day, and you probably won’t interact with any robots….we want to change that” Thomaz tells me. “The only way you can really bring robots out of the warehouses, off of the factory floors, is to build a robot that can work in our dynamic and messy everyday human environments.” The startup’s intention isn’t to full replace humans, which it doesn’t think is possible, but to let them focus on the most human elements of their jobs.

Moxi is about the size of a human but designed to look like an 80s movie robot so as not to engender and uncanny valley cyborg weirdness. Its head and eyes can move to signal intent, like which direction it’s about to move in, while sounds let it communicate with nurses and acknowledge their commands. A moving pillar lets it adjust its height while its gripper hand and arm can pick and put down smaller pieces of hospital equipment. Its round shape and courteous navigation makes sure it can politely share crowded hallways and travel via elevator.

Diligent Robotics’ solution engineers work with hospitals to teach Moxi how to get around and what they need. The company hopes to eventually build the ability to learn and adapt right into the bot so nurses can teach it new tasks on the fly. “The team continues to demonstrate unmatched robotics-specific innovation by combining social intelligence and human-guided learning capabilities” says True Ventures partner and Diligent board member Rohit Sharma.

Hospitals pay an upfront fee to buy Moxi robots, and then there’s a monthly fee for the software, services, and maintenance. Thomaz admits that “Hospitals are naturally risk-averse, and can be wary to take up new technology” so the startup is taking a slow and steady approach to deployment so it can convince buyers that Moxi is worth the learning curve.

Diligent Robotics will be competing with companies like Aethon’s TUG bot for pulling laundry and pharmacy carts. Other players in the hospital tech space include Xenex’s machine that disinfects rooms with light, and surgical bots like those from Johnson & Johnson’s Auris and Intuitive Surgical.

Diligent Robotics hopes to differentiate itself by building social intelligence into Moxi so it feels more like an intern than a gadget. “Time again, we hear from our hospital partners that Moxi not only returns time back to their day but also brings a smile to their face” says Thomaz. The company wants to evolve Moxi for other dull, dirty, or dangerous service jobs.

Eventually, Diligent Robotics hopes to bring Moxi into people’s homes. “While we don’t see robots replacing the companionship and the human connection, we do dream of a time that robots could making nursing homes more pleasant by offsetting the often staggering numbers of caretakers to bed ratios (as bad as 30:1)” Thomaz concludes. That way, Moxi could “help people age with dignity and hold onto their independence for as long as possible.”

Amazon cancels re:MARS 2020 event amid COVID-19 outbreak

Amazon has canceled re:MARS 2020, an annual AI event that focuses on machine learning, automation, robotics and space, over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was scheduled to be held June 16 to 19, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Organizers of the event said in a statement on its website that the event will be cancelled and guests who purchased tickets will receive a full refund. Here’s the statement:

Thank you for your interest in re:MARS 2020. Our top priority is the well-being of our employees, customers, partners, and event attendees. We have been closely monitoring the situation with COVID-19, and after much consideration, we have made the decision to cancel re:MARS 2020. All guests who have purchased tickets will receive a full refund of registration fees. Hotel rooms booked through our conference website will be canceled free of charge. Over the course of the coming weeks, we will explore other ways to engage the community.

Amazon launched re:MARS in 2019 and last year featured founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Landing AI founder and CEO Andrew Ng, actor and producer Robert Downey, Jr., MIT Media Lab researcher Dr. Kate Darling and Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans, among others.

COVID-19, a disease caused by a new virus that is a member of the coronavirus family and a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses. COVID-19 has caused governments and companies to cancel tech, business and automotive events around the world, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournaments, professional sports games in the NBA  and NHL, the Geneva International Motor Show, MWC in Barcelona and the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Disneyland and California Adventure will close through the end of the month. On Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, a designation that allows the government to free up more federal resources that states can access as they respond to outbreak.

Amazon issued guidance Thursday in response to the COVID-19 outbreak recommending that global employees who are able to work from home to do so through the end of March.

“We continue to work closely with public and private medical experts to ensure we are taking the right precautions as the situation continues to evolve,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an email statement. “As a result, we are now recommending that all of our employees globally who are able to work from home do so through the end of March.”

Earlier this week, Amazon said it would provide two weeks of extra paid time off for full and part-time employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine. The company said it will continue to pay all hourly employees, including food service, janitorial and security staff, who support its offices around the world.

US is preparing to ban foreign-made drones from government use

The Trump administration is preparing an executive order to ban federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones, citing a risk to national security, TechCrunch has learned.

The draft order, which was drafted in the past few weeks and seen by TechCrunch, would effectively ban both foreign-made drones or drones made with foreign components out of fear that sensitive data collected during their use could be transferred to adversarial nation-states. The order specifically calls out threats posed by China, a major hub for drone manufacturers that supply both government and consumers, with the prospect that other countries could be added later.

The order says it’s government policy to “encourage” the use of domestically built drones instead.

If passed federal agencies would have a month to comply with the order, it said. But the military and the intelligence community would be granted broad exemptions under the draft order seen.

When reached, a spokesperson for the White House did not comment.

It’s the latest move to crack down on Chinese-built technology, amid fears that Beijing is using its authority and influence to compel companies to spy at its behest. Huawei and ZTE among others have faced bans from operating inside the U.S. government, despite protests from the companies, which have long rebutted claims that they pose a risk due to their Chinese connections. Beijing responded in kind by banning U.S. and other foreign-made technology from its state offices.

The U.S. government’s prevalent use of predominantly Chinese-made drones has come under more intense scrutiny in recent months. In January, the Dept. of the Interior issued an order grounding its fleet of close to 800 foreign-made drones, except for in emergencies, amid concerns that any data collected would be “valuable” to U.S. adversaries.

But an email seen by TechCrunch dated July 2019 appears to show internal disagreements about the risks of using foreign-made drones, just months before the grounding order would come into force. Interior’s chief information officer William Vajda said in an email to two senior staffers that the department’s drone program “understands the risks” of foreign-made drones and has “taken appropriate steps to mitigate them.”

“The only more effective mitigation would be to use exclusively U.S. manufactured, non-foreign technologies,” he wrote.

Most of the department’s fleet is built by China-based manufacturer DJI, which stands to lose the most if the order is signed. DJI supplies some 70% of the world’s drones in a market said to be worth about $15 billion by the end of the decade.

A spokesperson for the Dept. of the Interior did not immediately comment outside business hours.

DJI spokesperson Michael Oldenburg said in a statement: “While we haven’t seen the document, this proposal is another attack on drone technology based on its country of origin, which recent reporting has shown has been criticized within federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and even the White House Office of Management and Budget.”

“When communicating among themselves, these agencies’ officials have explained how such an approach damages American interests and does not solve any cybersecurity issues, and have acknowledged that DJI’s products have been validated as secure for use in government operations,” the spokesperson said.


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DHL will deploy 1,000 robots from Locus Robotics for delivery fulfillment

Robotics have found a lot of success in the shipping and warehouse fulfillment categories for their ability to give logistics companies an edge in timing. Amazon is probably the best and most prominent example, with more than 200,000 robots currently deployed in its centers across the U.S.

As the retail giant has shifted expectations to next and same-day deliveries, competitors and partners have looked for an edge, with many turning to third-party robotics. Shipping giant DHL has been looking to robotics companies. In late 2018, the company’s North American wing announced its plan to invest $300 million in robotics and automation across 350 facilities.

A partner since 2017, Locus Robotics is reaping some of that windfall. DHL this week committed to deploying a total of 1,000 LocusBots from the Massachusetts-based startup. In spite of some large investments, it still feels like a drop in the bucket of the company’s overall footprint, expanding the robots’ locations from two to 12 sites in the coming year.

Clearly the shipping company does have good things to say about how the pilot has run so far.

“DHL Supply Chain’s initial implementation of the Locus solution within the life sciences and retail sectors was a tremendous success; we saw increases in fulfillment productivity of up to 80% in selected customer operations,” DHL retail president Jim Gehr said in a release. “We now see an opportunity to extend the benefits of utilizing their highly flexible AMR solution at scale for customers across multiple sectors. We look forward to continuing to work with Locus to drive productivity, support capacity growth and deliver continuous improvement within our customers’ supply chains nationwide.”

Locus Robotics is one of about 25 robotics companies DHL had plans to partner with when its initial investments were announced in 2018. The startup raised a $26 million Series C in April of last year. 

Why so many robotic startups fail, and what can be done about it

At last week’s TC Sessions: Robotics+AI, I felt it was important to focus at least one panel on companies that are working to foster robotics startups. NVIDIA’s VP of Engineering Claire Delaunay and Freedom Robotics co-founder and CEO Joshua Wilson joined me to offer unique perspectives.

Both companies help provide building blocks for founders. NVIDIA is using some of its tremendous resources to create platforms like Isaac, designed to help prototype robots. And Freedom, a fairly fresh startup in its own right, is designing AI offerings to ease the deployment of those manner of systems.

But the first step of helping robotic startups help themselves is identifying why so many fail. Citing a handful of high-profile examples like Rethink, Anki, Jibo and CyPhy Works, I put the question to the panelists: even with a lot of funding and plenty of smart people on board, why do so many robotic startups fail?

“I think it’s just very hard to solve robotics problems today, which makes it still very expensive and very hard to get to even an MVP (minimum viable product)  in the development cycle of the of the company,” said Delaunay. “Too many people focus still on robotics problem, not on the final problem, not on the on the business proposition.”

There are lots of reasons why robotics startups fail, but Delaunay honed in on one of the principle issues right out of the gate: unlike many other tech startups, robotics companies aren’t focused on solving a problem. But that’s often out of necessity. Imagine starting a car company but you first have to mine cobalt for the battery and pave the roads. Or, to use Delaunay’s analogy, building and manufacturing your own smartphone in order to launch an app.