Robotics and automation have already transformed how certain industries work, like the auto industry. But the technology is still being realized in many other sectors, and some of those businesses–like retail, food, and healthcare–became more reliant on automation and robotics during the pandemic. That change is likely permanent. The fact is that there are still many, many jobs that machines can do better than humans. The companies on this year’s list not only have great technology, but they’re applying it in ways that make a difference.
For replanting fire-ravaged forests
We’ve just seen the worst wildfire season on record in the United States, resulting in more than 8 million acres of land burned. On average, the world loses 18.8 million acres of forest to fires every year. Getting all that forest replanted and back to converting carbon dioxide is crucial to the environment, but in practice, it’s a costly and slow process. Seattle-based DroneSeed uses swarms of large, proprietary drones to carry seeds to burned areas and plant them in spots where they’re most likely to grow well. The seeds are delivered in “vessels” designed to keep the seed hydrated and protected from animals. The company says that it’s seen its contracts jump well into the six figures this year, and it’s now working with the Nature Conservancy and three of the five largest timber companies.
For flying high in the United States
Skydio has positioned itself as the made-in-the-USA alternative to DJI in the consumer drone market, and with some success. But where this distinction really flies is with government agencies, especially defense, because these customers are restricted from buying drones made outside the country. Building on the success of its Skydio 2 consumer drone, Skydio’s new Skydio X2 drones are made for commercial and government use. They have six 4K cameras for images and video, a thermal camera, and they use a powerful Nvidia chip for image processing and computer vision. The drones fly autonomously, avoiding other flying objects by using computer vision to identify them and predict their movements.
For deploying a pick-and-pack army
The Beijing-based startup Geekplus is part of a wave of Chinese logistics companies hurrying to supply AI and robotics to retailers that are under pressure to add speed and capacity to their product fulfillment. Geekplus makes robots that scurry around warehouse floors picking products for delivery. It supplies fleets of these robots, and their software brains, on a “service” basis. The five-year-old company got a new $200 million in funding in early 2020, bringing its total raised to almost $390 million. At the time of the investment Geekplus said it had more than 10,000 robots deployed worldwide, spread across 300 customers and projects in 20 countries.
For getting kids on board with STEAM learning
Shenzhen-based Makeblock develops hardware and software tools for teaching kids robotics and programming. This includes Arduino-based hardware, robotics hardware, and a programming platform called mBlock. The company has gotten traction in education, in part because its tools have a way of inspiring curiosity and making basic technology tools approachable for kids. In 2020, Makeblock developed a new education program called STEAM On Board, a series of online programs that train educators to teach computer science and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics). Also during 2020, Makeblock’s mBlock programming platform gained at least 4 million new users. The company says its tools are now used in more than 25,000 schools around the world.
For scrubbing in specialized surgical bots
Waltham, Massachusetts-based Corindus has developed a robotic system that precisely delivers medical devices during coronary and vascular procedures. The company is moving toward making robotics systems that will allow a highly experienced or specialized physician to perform a cardiovascular procedure from a location thousands of miles away from the patient. The company’s vision to expand patient access to care was part of what convinced health tech giant Siemens Healthineers to acquire Corindus for $1.1 billion in 2020. In the near term, the companies intend to combine the Corindus robotic technology with Siemens Healthineers’ advanced imaging and AI capabilities.
6. Berkshire Grey
For feeding our e-commerce habit
Bedford, Massachusetts-based Berkshire Grey is one of the companies e-commerce players have embraced to reach Amazon-level speeds in order fulfillment. The company makes integrated robotics systems that automate the process of picking, packing and sorting products into store and eCommerce orders for leading enterprises. The pandemic put even more pressure on retailers as people bought more things online. Berkshire Grey says its regular customers doubled their reliance on the robots during the pandemic. The company wrapped up a $263 million round of new funding in January 2020 announced plans to go public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in February.
For bringing moxie to consumer robotics
Consumer robots aren’t really a thing yet, but some specialized robots are starting to edge toward the mainstream. Embodied is the creator of Moxie, a big-eyed little robot meant to be a friend to a child. It’s also a child development tool: Moxie plays games, tells stories, and inspires creativity. The robot’s natural language AI lets it process and respond to natural conversation, and it can even recognize eye contact and detect facial expressions. It also can recall people, places, and things, and it starts learning about its child friend from the moment it’s turned on. Moxie may have provided an important stand-in buddy for some kids this year, when schools were closed and normal socialization habits were disrupted.
For reinventing the art of letter writing
This small Phoenix-based company Handwrytten has applied robotics to marketing communications, which is novel. It designs robots (95 of them so far) that write personal notes in a handwriting style the customer chooses at an online storefront. The robot then sends the note to the address provided by the customer. Even the address is “handwritten” on the envelope, which is important because recipients are three times more likely to open those, compared to type written ones. The company passed 62,000 users in October 2020, up from 9,436 customers in 2016.
9. Blue Ocean Robotics
For cleaning up amid COVID-19
UVD, which makes autonomous disinfection robots for hospitals and is a division of Blue Ocean Robotics, played an important role in this year of COVID-19. Its robots use UV-C light that needs only 10 minutes in one room to kill 99.99% of bacteria and viruses on surfaces and in the air. The light destroys the DNA and RNA structures of any microorganism, including novel coronavirus, stopping its reproduction. UVD designed its robot for hospitals, but during the pandemic it’s been put to use in elder-care facilities, schools, airports, airlines, hotels, pharmaceutical plants, and food and beverage companies in 60 countries, including the United States. The Danish company was honored by the American Society for Mechanical Engineers for its robot in 2020.
For betting on robots to fuel its online grocery
The UK-based online grocer Ocado has made a big bet that buying groceries online is ultimately a better experience than driving to a store. It’s also bet that fulfilling online orders is better done by robots in warehouses than by proxy shoppers in the aisles of a grocery store. This all depends on the quality of the robotics, in which Ocado continues to invest. The company recently purchased San Francisco-based Kindred Systems, which specializes in robotic piece-picking, for $262 million, and Las Vegas-based Haddington Dynamics, which makes low-cost robotic arms, for $25 million. It also took a minority stake in Myrmex, which develops unmanned curbside pickup systems. Ocado owns less than 2% of the UK grocery market today, but as its warehouses expand and its robots get smarter, that number may grow.