3D Robotics


Hizook has a great analysis of VC funding for robotics companies in 2011. There isn't as much of it as you might expect (note that only one is for a UAV company, Helen Greiner's CyPhy Works, which has yet to release a product). Here's his explanation for why:

My hope is that robotics will get more love in the next year(s), but getting VC funding for robotics is a decidedly tough nut to crack.  Robotics companies have large capital requirements for robot hardware, few potential acquirers, and almost no "Google-scale" breakout success stories (ie. IPOs).  I mean, c'mon... one of the best known robotics companies, iRobot, has a market cap of just $700 Million.  This makes robotics a difficult sell to your typical VC firm.  My hope is that this list can give others courage to pursue "swing for the fences" type projects along with a source for robotics-friendly VC firms.

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  • @Travis, @Geoffry

    Right on the money. Absolutely FAA regulations are crimping growth in the UAS industry, and especially the sUAS industry. I can imagine the tepid reception any drone entrepreneur would have when he has to tell investors "my product isn't exactly legal yet, and I can't say for sure if it ever will be."

    I actually believe that "Google-scale" breakouts are possible with robotics, so long as the right "Google-scale" vision is in place. People need to think about accommodating entire industries by deploying versatile systems, rather that custom-built robotics for applications, but a large scale can be achieved. That shift in perspective can only be achieved when people are allowed to openly experiment and develop UAS technology. More applications will be discovered. But again, it's hard to think in such a wide scale when your service is being held back by a few lines of federal code.

  • @Travis-

    No doubt the FAA regulations are a serious impediment to commercial UAV development. Fifteen years ago, I knew folks at the nearby Naval Research Lab who would test out a "micro air vehicle" design by going out into the parking lot and fly it, nevermind that NRL was on the Potomac River, not far from the flight path of airplanes landing at nearby DCA airport! Ten years ago, I could go to one of several parks in DC (Kenilworth Park was a favorite) and fly, and when the police would come, it was so they could watch during one of their breaks (they would leave when we crashed). Now? Obviously very different.

    Even if it does change by 2015 (a deadline that could easily be extended by another law, which gets done all the time), the three years between now and then is a long time in a field that, as we see right here, is more rapidly innovating than ever before. Of course, you can avoid this by flying inside- that is still adequate to test out a large variety of things, especially for the smaller MAV-scale. (Example: Vijay Kumar's swarms in a post below.)

    A strange byproduct of these laws is that by limiting commercial use but allowing amateur use, the FAA is effectively promoting the amateur/hobby sector relative to everyone else. So perhaps these laws can be thought of as a 3-year (through 2015) chance for the open amateur / hobby community to get ahead. As time has shown in the past, the collective work of a bunch of amateurs can make huge early advances in a field. (Consider amateur radio and personal computers as two examples.) So:

    Prediction #1: Over the next few years, there will be more innovation in small UAVs among the hobby / open source community than among private enterprises.

    Prediction #2: The future Steve Jobs of UAVs is currently a member of this community, or will soon be (if he/she in 2012 is not yet old enough to join).

  • 3D Robotics

    Travis: Yes, 3D Robotics (the commercial arm of DIY Drones) has not taken any external funding. By maintaining full control we're able ensure that our top priority is serving the community, not some investor. 

  • startup VC funding for Universal Air Ltd: zero

    Maybe it's time we considered VC funding...

  • Moderator

    There is no such thing as a UAV company, if people can't use the correct terms how can they expect the FAA to ever listen to them. 

    A bit too correct perhaps I know but its a fact.

  • Travis here (Hizook author).  

    @Chris, thanks for the kind words.  I'm glad to see that you still follow Hizook.  ;-)  While the robotics VC landscape is lacking, I'm really encouraged by bootstrapped outfits, like DIYdrones.  Based on the last revenues I saw reported for you guys, I imagine you could easily capture the top spot on that list.  But I'm glad that (1) you found a way to scale without taking funding (right?), and (2) you're maintaining full control of the operations while faithfully serving the open hardware and UAV communities.

    @Geoffrey, I think the biggest challenge for UAV-centric companies is FAA regulations.  IIRC, there are some extremely stringent regulations about flying UAV's for commercial purposes (I mention this in the CyPhy Works writeup).  If those can be overcome... opportunities will certainly open up.  For one, I'm really excited by the possibilities of paying for birds-eye tours.  But remember... UAV's suffer from major mobility problems too, especially those caused by limited battery life.  Ground vehicles have a definite advantage in this regard.  Ultimately, it's all about the "best tool for the job" -- the real trick is to find the jobs that are commercially viable.  :-)

  • A bit of late-night musing here... One challenge facing ground robots is that, with few exceptions (e.g. tracked or wheeled), they are mechanically complex, and thus there are plenty of opportunities for them to fail. A second challenge is that they primarily operate on a surface, basically a warped 2D shape. UAVs, on the other hand, are actually mechanically simpler, and have the benefit of traveling directly in 3D. So perhaps one could say that, fundamentally and in the long run, UAVs are inherently more viable than ground robots. Of course UAVs face other challenges- weight, reliability, stabilty (esp. in wind), and obstacles, but this all can be solved. I wonder if in 50 years UAVs will be a mature industry while ground robots are still playing catch-up. Just a thought...

  • It's funny that the largest recipient of money (Restoration Robotics) makes robots for doing hair transplants!

  • Orbotix's $5 million was amusing, since the Sphero does absolutely nothing.  But it uses an iPhone.  Mark Tilden could have used their salesman when he made Robosapien.  The largest upside is Thinklabs.  Extremely basic, tried & true education play during the student loan boom & they have the word India.  You can get $1 million in student loans with no down payment & no credit check.

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