Innovations and Start-ups: Drones & Robots, Autonomous Driving, and Crypto ATMs in Retail

Martijn Graat
Martijn Graat

Trends and innovations in supply chain and logistics: that is what this blog is all bout. Therefore I bring you an overview of the news this week on logistics start-ups and innovations below. Follow @LogisticsMatter on Twitter to stay up to date with the latest news and the best background stories. The previous edition was Innovations and Start-ups: Frictionless Shopping, Drones & Robots, and More…. This edition has more news about Drones and Robots, news on autonomous driving and Tesla, retail and crypto. This round-up ends with an article explaining the concept of the SPAC.

Drones (~ Martyn)

Drone delivery company Flytrex will start delivering chicken wings by drone in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Flytrex, like Wing, believes that drone deliveries to people’s front- and back yards are feasible.

Flytrex is one of a handful of companies nearing the end of a yearslong regulatory process with the FAA to be certified as a commercial airplane. Bash emphasized that acquiring FAA airworthiness certification is a huge deal, because the new classification comes with much greater leeway than a commercial drone classification. “The difference is huge. You can buy a commercial drone from Best Buy, versus it takes three to five years to certify an airplane. So to the untrained eye, they all look the same: a box with a few propellers. But aviation-wise, these are very different machines than most of those you see flying over your head.”

With an airplane certification in tow, Flytrex would be in a better position to compete on the national stage with Amazon and Alphabet’s Wing, which Bash identifies as his two main competitors in the backyard drone delivery space.

Flytrex will make chicken wings fly in North Carolina

Freightwaves brings some news on Alphabet’s drone delivery company Wing. Like Flytrex, Wing believes it can safely deliver goods to people’s back yard, making drone delivery feasible in more densely populated areas. Wing will partner with retailer Walgreens.

But Wing, the drone delivery subsidiary of Alphabet, announced Wednesday that it will pioneer a model that would allow drone delivery to expand into metropolitan areas. Wing will use drones to deliver directly to customers from a Walgreens location in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, making Walgreens the first U.S. retailer to use drone delivery in a major metropolitan area.

Alphabet drone delivery arm Wing set to deliver in cities

Go Robot (~ Red Hot Chili Peppers)

Amazon wants to expand its warehouse robotics capabilities. To enable this, it is opening a new 350,000 square-foot facility in Massachusetts.

The 350,000-square-foot facility in Westborough will feature corporate offices, research and development labs, and manufacturing space. It joins an Amazon Robotics facility in North Reading, Massachusetts. The facilities are about one hour driving distance from each other, with the new Westborough location closer to central Massachusetts and North Reading near Boston.

Amazon opens robotics facility in Massachusetts

Grocery robot vendor Fabric has reached unicorn status with its latest round of funding.

Investment dollars continued flowing into the logistics robotics sector this week with the news that micro-fulfillment automation provider Fabric had landed $200 million in venture backing, pushing it over the “unicorn” threshold and providing fuel for continued growth of its robotic on-demand fulfillment technology stack.

The new money will allow logistics robotics vendors to help retailers cope with a leap in e-commerce sales penetration rates that more than doubled to 35% in 2020, the equivalent of roughly ten years of growth within a few months, according to Fabric. At the same time, that surge in online shopping has been compounded by evolving consumer expectations to receive their orders faster than ever.

Grocery robot vendor Fabric grows fast with $200 million venture round

Warehouse robotics start-up Dexterity also raised additional capital: 140 million dollars Series B funding.

In spite of only coming out of stealth last summer, the company has been working with customers for two years now, moving more than 14 million items in that time, across 50,000+ product SKUs, including, “loosely packed deformable polybags, to delicate hot-dog buns, to floppy tortillas, to poorly sealed cardboard boxes, to bags of earthworms, to trays and crates of consumer food, to even a molten birthday cake.

Warehouse robotics firm Dexterity raises $140M

The Bargain Store (~ Dolly Parton)

On to retail innovations. Two news items that caught my eye had to do with cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Walmart is partnering with Coinme to allow its customers to buy and sell bitcoin at Coinstar kiosks.

Retail giant Walmart (NYSE:WMT) launches a pilot program that allows customers to purchase bitcoin (BTC-USD) through Coinstar kiosks at some of its stores, CoinDesk reports.

Coinstar, through a partnership with Coinme, has 200 kiosks in Walmart stores in the U.S., a spokesperson told CoinDesk via email.

Part of the process includes passing a “know-your-customer” check.

The service charges a transaction fee of 4% and a cash exchange fee of 7%, according to Coinstar’s website.

Walmart puts bitcoin ATMs in stores in pilot program with Coinme

Pacsun, a California-themed retailer, has become the first major teen retailer to accept cryptocurrencies as payment.

“The Gen Z audience, our primary consumer, is very tech oriented, and we dedicate a lot of our efforts towards social media and e-commerce to align with their lifestyles and resonate with them on a more personal level,” said Mike Relich, Pacsun’s co-CEO, in a statement.

Is it time for retailers to hop on the cryptocurrencies trend?

And there is a new trend in town: store hailing. Or is that a modern version of the milkman?

What is store hailing? It’s not unlike ride hailing in that you’re using an app as you would with Uber or Lyft to call up a store and pay for your order. In this instance, Robomart has reconfigured a van to be a mobile store on wheels. As a consumer, you download the Robomart app and enter in your payment information just like the Uber or Lyft app. You can check out the available inventory online, and if you see something you want, you hail a store. A typical Robomart stocks 50 to 60 SKUs. The vehicles are not autonomous – yet. However, the driver is not involved in the transaction, and Ahmed’s vision for the future is for autonomous vehicles, when they’re ready for prime time.

Is store hailing the next big thing for retail?

Driver’s Seat (~Sniff ‘n’ the Tears)

Many start-ups and some OEMs are working hard to make the driver’s seat obsolete—a quick round-up of automated driving news.

Autonomous trucking startup TuSimple Holdings doesn’t see itself competing with customers who will buy trucks equipped with its autonomous software. Still, it is growing its own fleet to more than 200 trucks, putting it in the top 20% of freight haulers.  

Autonomous truck scaling: Is TuSimple competing with its freight customers?

Swedish freight tech company Einride and GE Appliances (GEA) to bring Einride’s autonomous electric transports (AET) called Pods to the United States for the first time which have no driver/passenger cabins and are remotely controlled by operators back at the office.

Einride doesn’t actually sell its Pods, but rather makes them available on a subscription basis. It also doesn’t build them, outsourcing production based on its strict engineering and design guidelines. The vehicles are then managed the Einride Mobility Platform, a cloud-native transport execution system for autonomous and electric road transport.

GE Appliances To Use Einride Autonomous Electric Pods

BlueCruise, the “hands-free” driver assist feature that Ford sees as a viable competitor to GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot, won’t receive any over-the-air software updates until the first quarter of 2022, the company’s executives said Wednesday night. The automaker had originally planned on pushing its first OTA software updates for select Ford customers before the end of 2021.

Ford delays software updates for its ‘hands-free’ BlueCruise driver assist feature until 2022

SPACe Oddity (~ David Bowie)

The final item in this round-up is an article I came across that explains how a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) works. SPACS have been dominating the start-up news lately.

A SPAC allows professional investors to create a shell company, which lists publicly. This company can then merge or acquire an existing company, allowing that company to go public, a process called de-SPACing. The target company can “skip” the regulatory paperwork of a traditional IPO, allowing “the professionals [to] handle that,” according to Michael Watson, senior legal counsel at Deminor.

The shell companies, sometimes referred to as blank check companies, go to investors to raise money and then have a window — typically about two years — to merge with or acquire brands looking to go public. If they don’t find a brand, the money goes back to the investors. If they do find a target company, the de-SPACing process can move forward. The shell companies are highly incentivized to find a target, Watson said, because oftentimes they’ll get about 20% of the shares being purchased without having to put money in themselves.

‘A gold rush’: Inside the rise of SPACs

Photo by Executium on Unsplash

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