Clearpath Robotics Inc. today said it has raised $30 million to fund its OTTO Motors division for autonomous material handling. The company plans to scale up manufacturing, hire workers, and expand its marketing strategy for its factory and warehouse robots.
Although self-driving cars have gotten a lot of attention lately, Clearpath’s logistics automation is already in use by companies such as General Electric and John Deere.
iNovia Capital led the investment, with funding also coming from Caterpillar Ventures, GE Ventures, Eclipse Ventures, RRE Ventures, and Silicon Valley Bank.
“Software-differentiated hardware will disrupt every major sector over the next decade,” said Karam Nijjar, a partner at iNovia Capital. “Self-driving vehicles are already revolutionizing transportation. … Clearpath isn’t just building the factory of the future; [it’s also] laying the foundation for entirely new business models enabled by artificial intelligence, autonomy, and automation.”
Clearpath was founded in 2009 and participated in a U.S. Department of Defense competition for robots to detect and remove land mines. After an angel investment of $300,000, the company moved to unmanned vehicles for research. Clearpath raised $11.2 million and launched OTTO for autonomous material handling last year.
Last week, Clearpath was an exhibitor at RoboBusiness in San Jose, Calif., and Simon Drexler, director of industrial solutions at OTTO Motors, spoke about “Using Self-Driving Vehicles for Interconnected Operations.”
Matt Rendall, CEO and co-founder of Kitchener, Ontario-based Clearpath, replied to Robotics Business Review‘s questions below:
How does Clearpath’s technology distinguish it from other logistics automation providers and self-driving car makers?
Traditional technology for material handling in manufacturing environments — typically automated guided vehicles — requires infrastructure such as cables, magnetic tape, bar codes, or predefined paths. They are inflexible, since they have to stick to their fixed paths. They can cause bottlenecks if one breaks down, and they are typically not designed with the end user in mind, so they’re difficult to use.
The OTTO self-driving vehicles are an evolution of this. They operate with infrastructure-free navigation — no cables or magnetic tape — and they have onboard intelligence to offer obstacle detection and avoidance.
They also have dynamic path planning, meaning if something or someone blocks its path, the vehicle can think for itself and move around the obstacle to move to its final destination on the most efficient route.
When compared with self-driving vehicles for outdoor roads, OTTO uses the same underlying technology — via sensors and SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping] used in the Google driverless car.
The difference here is that we’re focused on materials transport in factories and warehouses and not driven to put our technology on outdoor roads. Material transport is a crucial part of the supply chain, and we don’t see anyone else leveraging these types of advanced technologies for the field, so we’re excited to be influencing how modern factories and warehouses operate.
What technical or marketing challenges is Clearpath working on next for autonomous material handling?
We’re always working to strengthen our products, and we’ll have some more details to share before long. We do plan to build up our marketing and sales teams to put OTTOs into more facilities around the world.
Does the OTTO autonomous navigation technology have any implications for self-driving cars?
OTTO is a self-driving vehicle. The difference is that it is made for indoors and uses localization, while self-driving vehicles for outdoors typically use GPS.
The beauty of OTTO is that it is actually in use in real facilities today, unlike outdoor self-driving cars, which still have a way to go before acceptance by the general public.
In many ways, factories and warehouses work like small cities, complete with intersections, vehicles, pedestrians, lanes of traffic, and more. The factory floor is a controlled environment, which makes it an ideal place to introduce self-driving vehicles at scale.
Companies like Google, Tesla, and Uber are still testing, whereas our self-driving vehicles are commercially available today.
How does Clearpath see the market for supply chain automation, which several other robotics companies have entered? Is it concerned about competition, or does it see its share, leadership, and the overall market size as sufficient?
The market for self-driving passenger vehicles will be over $80 billion by 2030. We believe the market for self-driving materials handling vehicles will be equally significant.
The manufacturing industry is experiencing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Industry 4.0 capability, otherwise known as the next industrial revolution. Industry is going to see machines talking to machines, and real-time data will be used to report and iterate on internal processes within plants.
The opportunity for new technology and the ripple effects those technologies are going to have within industry are massive.
More on Autonomous Material Handling:
- Canvas Technology Develops ‘Automotive-Level’ Autonomy for Goods Delivery
- ASI Brings Autonomous Systems to Farms, Roadways
- Service, Logistics Robots Grow at the Pace of E-Commerce
- Caterpillar, Microsoft, GE Ventures Invest $10.5 Million in Sarcos
- Innovation Drives Canadian Robotics Vision, Mobility
- Robots at the Warehouse: Changing the Face of Modern Logistics
- InVia Robotics Promises Easier Automated Materials Handling
- Go East, Logistics Robot — and Quickly!
Can you elaborate on Clearpath’s reliance on “ethically sourced, domestically made” products?
The consumer market is very aware of offshore manufacturing initiatives due to lower labor rates. With this and the fact that labor rates are increasing in foreign markets, manufacturers want to bring operations back to North America — closer to the customer.
The challenge, however, is that there’s a labor shortage for manufacturing roles in North America; that’s where next-generation solutions like OTTO can help. OTTO can take on the mundane material transport tasks that are difficult to fill, which then leaves the complex, valuable roles for people.
We believe that industrial automation will enable companies to bring manufacturing back to North America and create new, skilled jobs needed to keep self-driving vehicles and robots working.