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Kiva Systems is largely responsible for creating today’s logistics robotics market. It would be a fun exercise to compile the robotics companies, logistics and non-logistics, that can be traced back to the Massachusetts-based company that was founded in 2003.
Kiva Systems’ creators Raffaello D’Andrea, Mick Mountz and Peter Wurman are again being recognized for their innovation by being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF). The Class of 2022 includes 27 pioneers who will be honored in Washington, D.C. on May 5-6. The NIHF was founded in 1973 in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Of the 27 innovators in the 2022 class, 22 of them were announced in 2020. The ceremony was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the 22 original honorees along with five new honorees make up the 2022 class.
“My passion for science and creating led me to a career in engineering,” D’Andrea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to be recognized alongside Mick Mountz and Pete Wurman for our accomplishments at Kiva Systems.”
Kiva was founded by Mountz in Palo Alto, Calif. as Distrobot Systems. He moved the company to Massachusetts as he could not find financial investors out West. “On the West Coast, I told the Kiva fundraising story and got nervous looks from dot-com investors, who didn’t want to touch hardware,” Mountz told Boston Business Journal in 2011.
Staples was the first Kiva customer, installing a Kiva system in a Pennsylvania distribution center in 2006 and a second system in Colorado in 2007. Another early customer was Walmart, which had a fulfillment center with more than 1,000 robots.
Of course, Amazon purchased Kiva in 2012 for $775 million, later re-named the company Amazon Robotics, and the rest is history.
D’Andrea led the systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination, and learning-based control algorithms development at Kiva until 2007. In 2008, he returned to academia where he founded the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich. In 2013, D’Andrea co-founded ROBO Global, which launched the world’s first robotics exchange traded fund. In 2014, he founded Verity, which creates autonomous indoor drone systems, where he currently serves as CEO and chairman.
Mountz was CEO of Amazon Robotics until he left at the end of 2015. He has been part of the funding board for the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund. He also recently joined the board of piece-picking company RightHand Robotics and retail drone company Pensa Systems.
Mountz told The Robot Report in 2018 that RightHand Robotics is picking up where Kiva left off. He said Kiva customers years ago would ask why it did not use a robot for piece-picking. Mountz would tell them robotic piece-picking technology simply was not ready.
“We were laser-focused on our mobile robotic fulfillment solution,” Mountz said. “We had a demo at Kiva that always impressed customers. We would present them with a web page with groceries to buy. They would click on Coke, Captain Crunch, chocolate chip cookies and then hit submit. Then a robot would deliver those three items to them and I’d pick them out and scan them. Back then, you’d need a NASA-sized research budget to solve the picking task.”
As CTO of Kiva, Wurman was responsible for the system architecture and decision-making algorithms that allocated the tasks and coordinated the motion of the robot fleet. Wurman earned his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering at MIT, and his master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and computer science and doctorate in computer science at the University of Michigan. He is currently Director of Sony AI America.
The NIHF website has full biographies for D’Andrea, Mountz and Wurman, but here are a couple of snippets that help tell the Kiva story.
– “In 2003, D’Andrea, a co-founder of the systems engineering program at Cornell University, and the faculty adviser and system architect of the four-time world champion Cornell robot soccer team, had just started his sabbatical at MIT when he met Mountz over a 15-minute cup of coffee. After several more meetings, D’Andrea quit his sabbatical at MIT and joined Mountz and Wurman in their quest to revolutionize order fulfillment.”
– “[Mountz] asked Wurman, his former MIT roommate, and a North Carolina State University professor, for software advice. Together, they decided on a centralized software architecture to wirelessly command the robots in real time. Shortly thereafter, D’Andrea, a robotics expert and professor from Cornell University, joined the company then known as Distrobot to develop the hardware layer.”
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