The stock market plummets, schools and houses of worship shutter, businesses order employees to stay home – all because of microscopic droplets. As Corona takes on a new meaning, beyond a cold one, global anxiety of the virus has unified the world in fear. If there is one silver lining this week, it is the acceptance of robots in freeing humans from infection. Telepresence is no longer a novelty, it is the frontlines in keeping people connected with their workplaces, schools, and quarantined family members. The LA Times reported that US-based telepresence Double Robotics has seen a “surge” in orders. David Cann, CEO of Double, exclaims, “We’re trying to catch up on orders, we have a backlog now and we’re trying to build as fast as possible.”
Moving past the hysteria, computer vision is a defining element of intelligent machines transforming mechanical movements into dynamic workflow. Realizing the importance of artificial intelligence for Industry 4.0, my firm, ff Venture Capital, partnered with NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering to create the nation’s first AI accelerator program in 2016. In April 2017, the accelerator, NYU/ffVC AI NexusLab, graduated its first cohort. One of the standouts, which is now part of ff VC’s portfolio, was Cambrian Intelligence. Earlier this year, I caught up with Cambrian’s founder, Miika Pera, on his firm’s progress in applying its AI imaging platform to collaborative robotics.
The English-based entrepreneur elaborated on his motivation for joining the NexusLab and launching an applied AI company, “The vision that I have is that with deep integration of AI to robotics we can gradually start making all physical matter around us programmable, meaning all supply chains from manufacturing to mining from hospitality to medical and food.” Mr. Pera continued, “In essence, we’re building technology for the world where everything will be made by robots. Currently, everything around us has been built by human hands in some way or another and if we’re smart enough we can automate that – but the robots need intelligence to replace human hands and arms in any repetitive or non-repetitive tasks.” The engineer imagines a future whereby any designer, anywhere, could “just upload a CAD design of a new product, to a factory full of intelligent robots and the product just gets made without any human intervention and of course at a low cost.”
To accomplish the lofty goal of enabling smart manufacturing through today’s installed base of co-bots, Pera’s team is infusing off-the-shelf sensors with its full-stack platform. “Our AI that is a giant neural network receives input from the cameras and outputs the part locations, orientations and how they should be grasped with the current gripper type. Our software then guides the robot to do the picking,” describes Cambrian’s chief executive. Pera stressed the camera module is “just two off-the-shelf industrial RGB cameras in a stereo configuration.” The startup’s intellectual property is its software that turns the sensors into virtual eyes that perceives the working environment in three dimensions, versus existing two dimensional solutions on the marketplace. Pera illustrated simply how Cambrian works, “Imagine you’re a manufacturer and you have part A and part B in a chaotic bin and you’d like to install the A into B and then pass it forward in the assembly line. With Cambrian setting up for these kinds of tasks, it takes just minutes and you’re good to go. ” He further elaborated, “there is no learning on the real robot, after training it just works out of the box.” According to the founder, Cambrian’s solution is a game changer for his clients, large European manufacturers as it is adaptable to all the leading robot arms, including Kuka, ABB and Universal Robots.
Cambrian Intelligence is part of a larger story of the growth of the co-bot ecosystem, which is projected to exceed $24 billion annually by 2030. Rian Whitton of ABI Research projects, “The hardware innovation is still trailing behind, and most of the value related to cobots does not come from collaboration. It comes through ease-of-use, re-programmability, lower total cost compared to industrial systems, and re-deployability. In essence, the value is one of lowering barriers rather than building entirely new use cases for robots. What is more, cobots still trail industrial systems in speed, performance, and payload, which will have to change if adoption is to continue at this feverish rate.” Whitton further estimates that software systems could account for half of co-bot revenues, climbing from its present value of $558 million to $10.6 billion in 2030. Universal Robots, which represents 58% of the global marketshare, has expanded its website to include a software marketplace of approved vendors.
Cambrian is part of new class of co-bot software companies that is leveraging deep learning to tackle specific tasks. As Pera details, “Our current customers are manufacturers in the electronics and automotive industries. For example, the body shop of an automotive factory is almost fully automated, but the automotive assembly is not automated at all.” He delineated further how Cambrian’s technology is expanding its task library, while today it is able to automate 10-15% of manual labor, within 5 years their software will be able to do 70-80% of manufacturing tasks, currently done by hand. In Pera’s words, “Enhancing cobots with more intelligence will actualize much higher growth rates for the cobot sales as they will be quicker to set for a new task and manufacturers can use them for more tasks.”
As I write this article, I see my kids attending their classes via Zoom and Google Hangouts. This week, Forbes contributor Greg Petro recently wrote a piece entitled, “A Black Swan Event: Will Coronavirus Finally Force Adoption Of Next-Gen Tech?” As Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analyst, reported in Recode: “What these temporary uses tend to do is show companies that a) it can be done, and b) having people already accustomed to working remotely makes the transition much easier.” Recode further commented, “Remote work is here to stay, pandemic or not, but the coronavirus may force the transition more quickly than expected.” Waiting for the panic to settle and the return to normalcy, one thing is for certain in a post-COVID world – computer vision will be even more pervasive.