More Automatons about Buildings and Food

More Automatons about Buildings and Food

We’re gearing ready to return to Boston in July for our TC Sessions Robotics event, as I said last year. Before everything shut down, our March 2020 event on the Berkeley campus was the final major in-person TechCrunch event. We determined that robotics is a subject best explored up close for what should surely be self-evident reasons, therefore we took 2021 off. I’ve been chomping at the bit for the past two years or so, thinking about the programming for this one, and it’s hard to turn off the firehose now that we’ve started the early stages. When we’re ready to start announcing visitors, I’ll almost certainly devote a piece to them.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on how the business has changed since it all began. I’m very convinced that future historians will look back on this as a watershed event, when, after decades of rhetoric about the future, robots finally became a part of everyday life. Of course, some verticals are considerably further ahead than others. At least on the investment side, delivery is making significant progress. Regulation and implementation are taking longer than expected. It’s understandable. Aside from manufacturing, which has a long history, particularly in the automobile industry, warehouse fulfillment has recently become quite popular. Amazon was the first to do so, and now the rest of the industry is catching up.

Then there was COVID. Then there are labor shortages. Then there’s the issue of the supply chain. These days, decentralized logistics is the only way to go, and fulfillment centers are increasingly likely to be operated by robots, such as RightHand’s pick and place machines, which just received another $66 million. The company’s current capital is estimated to be over $100 million. It’s a healthy — but not outrageous — number for a business with a lot of real-world experience. Zebra Technologies, which, as I said yesterday, purchased fetch last year, is among the lengthy list of important investors here.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of logistics and delivery, I’d like to advertise my talk with Agility Robotics CTO Jonathan Hurst and PlayGround Global founding partner Bruce Leak coming up next week. That’s 11:30 a.m. PT / 2:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday. More information can be found here. Anyway, if you asked me which industries are on the verge of breaking through, I’d say agriculture and construction. Both of these businesses are large, with a lot of room for automation. Agriculture is a fascinating subject in particular. It’s practically ripe for the picking. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably aware of how difficult the category is, and we’ve recently witnessed several setbacks.

John Deere is investing heavily in robotics, both through internal development and acquisitions such as Bear Flag. It’s well-positioned to be a big participant in autonomous tractors because it’s John Deere. However, labor shortages are a serious issue in the United States, where the average age of a farmer is just shy of 60, despite the fact that farming is typically physically demanding. The next few years will be tumultuous for agriculture in general, especially as climate change remains a major concern. 

It’s a topic that will very certainly pique interest in new approaches to the area, such as the vertical farming we highlighted last week. However, the agricultural world, which has been around for 10,000 years, is not going to alter suddenly. In some aspects, robotics provides a way to retrofit old methods of land management with new technologies.