4 Key Challenges for Mobile Robotics Startups
How Bear Flag Robotics has built the technology & services to scale
The increasing adoption of autonomy, and more specifically robotics, is truly exciting. Robotics are already integral in our lives, from the manufacturing of our cars to the amazing logistics of getting any product on Amazon to our doorstep within two days. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The most prominent application is in autonomous driving, but there is incredible innovation across many different sectors. In the past year we’ve been blown away by companies building robots in farming, home building, excavation, warehouse logistics, industrial inspection, commercial security, grass cutting, snow plowing and more. Robotics in all of these applications, including autonomous vehicles, presents a more efficient, cost effective, and safer solution. As much as we are rooting for all of these companies to improve the way the world operates, we saw 4 common near term challenges for mobile robotics companies in rapidly scaling their services.
- Proximity to humans: Although we believe that robotics technology has evolved to the point where robots are safer than the equivalent in human operation, safety precautions will always require extensive testing and a track record of logged hours prior to broad commercial roll out. The more intertwined with human activity, the more that testing will be required to shift mindsets and to convince regulators. This is the most evident in autonomous passenger vehicles — Waymo test vehicles have traveled more than 20 million(!!) combined miles, but wide scale autonomous driving is still many years away. Similarly, industrial mobile robots in more controlled environments like construction sites or warehouses will still need to demonstrate a track record of safety in order to achieve broad adoption.
- Customer driven product iteration: The use of robots can present a series of significant shifts in the way work is done. Take an autonomous forklift for example — the warehouse operator’s shift in operations may include: setting up routes, training personnel to deal with autonomy, integrating with the warehouse management system (WMS), dealing with hand-offs at origin and destination, and adjusting the robot’s routes quickly to account for environmental changes such as spillage or maintenance. Adjusting the technology or software to optimize the user experience may not be a large technical hurdle, but it is critical that robotics companies rapidly iterate on the product based on customer feedback, from initial integration to scaled operations.
- Seamless customer service & maintenance: In addition to product iterations, service scalability and optimization is a challenge that resource constrained startups will face. Take autonomous construction equipment as an example — construction companies and equipment operators are accustomed to well-oiled maintenance and service operations provided by the OEM or the dealer. But in the case of autonomous machines, there is additional hardware such as expensive sensors, along with complex software bringing all of the pieces together. The startup will inevitably be responsible for servicing these machines, and in cases where the jobsite is in a remote area, it may be prohibitively expensive to send an engineer whenever an issue arises.
- Customers to scale with : In light of the first three challenges above, we believe that it is important for early stage robotics companies to land large customers that can support an early proof of concept (POC) all the way up to a broader deployment that allows the startup to create a track record of logged hours. Due to the technological leap and need for an operational mindset shift, sales cycles will inevitably be long. Therefore, in the rapidly moving startup world, large customers are highly favorable for a robotics startup to be able to build up its track record.
These four challenges that robotics startups face are intertwined, creating an uphill battle for early stage technology companies. Potential customers require a track record of demonstrated safety and reliability in order to adopt this new technology at scale. On the flip side, startups need to engage at scale with customers to build a track record and to iterate on product and services. Robotics startups are making valiant efforts to demonstrate the power of their technology through proof of concept engagements, but these POCs are typically localized and time consuming.
We made our first robotics investment last year in Fremont based Bear Flag Robotics. Founded by Igino Cafiero and Aubrey Donnellan, Bear Flag Robotics has developed agricultural robotics technology and services that are well positioned to overcome the four key challenges and allow the company to march towards broad adoption across the agriculture industry.
- Proximity to humans: Bear Flag’s autonomous tractors have the luxury of operating in massive fields with no humans in a wide radius of its operation. This drastically reduces the risk of unpredictable safety incidents and has given Bear Flag the opportunity to log tens of thousands of autonomous acres of tilling services.
- Customer driven product iteration: Bear Flag has large customers within a 3–5 hour driving radius of its home office. This allows the team to visit customers and iterate on the product and services in real time. Bear Flag also brought on Dan Carmichael, a 5th generation farmer, to the team to lead farming operations. Dan’s expertise in agriculture, combined with the team’s world class engineering team and accessibility to deployment sites has enabled Bear Flag to iterate on the technology and services to best suit their customers.
- Seamless customer service & maintenance: In addition to remote operation and diagnostic capabilities, the driving distance to customers allows Bear Flag leadership and engineers to visit customers quickly if there is an issue in getting the customer set up or if there’s an issue with the sensors. Ultimately, Bear Flag will have to build out a scalable customer service and maintenance operation, but in the early days the ability to be hands-on allows the team to learn from potential issues customers face and help them overcome the radical shift of deploying autonomous tractors in their fields.
- Customers to scale with: Bear Flag’s customers in Northern and Central California farm massive amounts of land — one of the early customers operates 100,000 acres. By providing autonomous tractor services for just a few customers, Bear Flag has the opportunity to build a deep track record of autonomous services provided, refine its services and introduce new ones, and develop a robust service and maintenance operation. This is proving to be hugely valuable as Bear Flag starts to scale its sales and operations to farms beyond California.
We are excited for the future of robotics in increasing operational efficiency across countless industries. We believe smart and scrappy entrepreneurs will overcome the challenges they face in the early days and build massive businesses. Bear Flag Robotics was our first investment in this space, and we hope to partner with many more in the future.