DARPA-backed Soft Robotics raises $23 million for autonomous grippers and sorters

Soft Robotics raised another $23 million to continue developing its solutions to the seemingly intractable problems gripping and sorting machines face.

As work published by MIT and others has established, picker robots struggle with complex poses and unfamiliar objects. That’s because they not only have to locate objects and understand how to grasp them, but because they’ve got to set them down such that they don’t sustain damage or disturb their surroundings. Truly versatile picker robots could transform warehouses in industries from ecommerce to manufacturing.

CEO Carl Vause said this capital infusion, which comes after Soft Robotics partnered with industrial giant FANUC to integrate its systems with the latter’s robots through a new controller, will accelerate the startup’s next phase of growth. “Variability is the kryptonite of the robotics industry,” he added. “By offering a system that is able to grasp and manipulate items that vary in size, shape, and weight, we are able to solve the problem of high variability in both products and processes.”

Soft Robotics describes its grippers as a “fundamentally new class” of machine — those that are adaptive, plug and play, repeatable, and reliable. Its mGrip product allows builds with multiple configurations and spacing options with a cycling time of 3-4 times per second and “sub-millimeter” precision, thanks in part to its air-filled soft plastic design. As for the SuperPick, it’s a robot-agnostic solution comprising a vision system and AI engine that reports real-time metrics, enabling capabilities including exception handling, remote operator access, object detection, bin localization, grasp detection, grasp quality analysis, and precision placement.

Soft Robotics supplies every component necessary to get its systems up and running, including control units and software that provides control of grip parameters including force, actuator spacing, and opening width. The controller itself can store up to eight grip profiles in total.

Soft Robotics was founded by Carmichael Roberts and George Whitesides in June 2013. Whitesides, a member of Harvard University’s Whitesides Research Group, pioneered many of the technologies underpinning them, including the“Pneu-Net” soft robotics actuator as part of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) ChemBots program. After securing licensing rights to the Whitesides patent portfolio and grants from DARPA, Soft Robotics went onto nab Dow 30 and Fortune 500 customers in food and beverage, manufacturing, and logistics market segments, including Just Born Quality Confections (the maker of Peeps).

The robotics market is on the upswing, as alluded to earlier. Analysts at Allied Market Research anticipate it’ll reach $5.186 billion by 2023 as tasks like pick-place, packaging, transportation, packaging, and palletizing become increasingly automated. A recent survey published by EyeForTransport reflects this — it revealed an 18% year-over-year increase in the testing of warehouse robotics, with 25% of the 100 companies surveyed revealing that they piloted robots in a limited number of warehouses in 2019.

Soft Robotics’ oversubscribed funding round — a series B — was co-led by Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact, with participation from new investor FANUC Corp and existing investors Honeywell, Hyperplane, Scale, Tekfen Ventures, and Yamaha. It brings the company’s total raised to $48 million following a $20 million series A raise in May 2018.

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