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Start-up raises $12m for tech that turns robots into cobots

30 October, 2017

A US start-up that is developing technologies to convert traditional industrial robots into safe “collaborative” systems, has attracted $12m of funding from backers including GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Next47, a venture capital firm created by Siemens.

Massachusetts-based Veo Robotics, founded in 2016, is creating intelligent, “human-aware” systems that bring perception and intelligence to traditional industrial robots, allowing humans and machines to work closely together. The company's first product uses a new type of intelligent algorithm running on parallel computing hardware, combined with distributed 3D sensors, to allow humans to collaborate safely with powerful industrial robots.

Veo plans to use the new funding to support product development and to accelerate its hiring of personnel for computer vision, engineering, product management and systems engineering roles.

“This is a revolutionary time for global manufacturing,” says Dr Patrick Sobalvarro, Veo's CEO and co-founder, who was previously president of Rethink Robotics. “For more than 100 years, we've been using machine tools that are unaware of their users and unable to respond to them intelligently.”

He believes that the technologies that VEO is developing offer “an opportunity to make a step change in manufacturing to fluid, intelligent, highly flexible and productive environments where humans and machines work closely together, each doing what they do best."

Veo's technology allows industrial workers to work collaboratively with machines, bringing more flexibility, productivity and precision to manufacturing. Four depth-sensing cameras are placed around the workspace and used to designate items within their view as workpieces, and other areas as forbidden.

The system builds a representation of what is happening in a workcell so that it knows where people, robots and workpieces are. It then predicts where those elements could move in the next 100ms and uses intelligent controls to override the robot programming to respond to the presence of the humans.

Veo’s software supervises the robot’s conventional controller. The robot operates as normal, but now knows the location and size of everything in its operating area. If someone or something intrudes into this space, it can slow down or stop. If the system is not certain that it’s safe – for example, if a camera’s view is obscured – the robot stops.

Veo Robotics’ leaders (from left): senior director of hardware, Scott Denenberg; vice-president of engineering, Clara Vu; and president and CEO, Patrick Sobalvarro

“For decades, we've been told robots were to blame for the dearth of manufacturing jobs in the US, but that's about to change,” says Bilal Zuberi, partner at Lux Capital, which has led Veo’s funding drive. He believes that Veo has “a counter-intuitive vision for the future: if you improve the robots, manufacturers will be able to hire more people for better jobs.

“Veo is giving industrial robots the gift of perception and intelligence so these helpful machines can still do the dangerous heavy lifting, yet safely work alongside humans,” he adds.

Andy Wheeler, a general partner at GV, argues that “there is a significant market opportunity for intelligent software that enables safe interaction between humans and machines in industrial environments. With the founding team’s deep understanding of manufacturing environments and extensive technical expertise in sensor technology, robotics and artificial intelligence applications, Veo is well-positioned to have a meaningful impact on the industrial robotics industry.”

The team behind Veo Robotics has 50 years of combined experience in robotics, artificial intelligence, sensor perception and industrial automation. Sobalvarro is a serial entrepreneur who founded IntelliVid and later sold it to Tyco. Co-founder and vice-president of engineering at Veo, Clara Vu, is the former co-founder of Harvest Automation and was an early employee and senior software engineer at iRobot. Co-founder and senior director of hardware, Dr Scott Denenberg, was previously a senior director at Jentek Sensors. Lux Capital’s Bilal Zuberi and GV’s Andy Wheeler are joining Veo’s board of directors.

Veo is working with customers in sectors including automotive, consumer packaged goods, domestic appliance manufacturing and automated distribution. It is planning to initiate pilot installations with some of them next year, before launching the technology commercially in 2019.

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