Formant is solving the robotic Tower of Babel with a unified platform – TechCrunch

If you’re building a SaaS company or web application, you’re not going to roll your own analytics solution – it’s a niche business with lots of cutting edge cases, rabbit holes, and for most companies it’s been removed so far from the platform, it just doesn’t make sense. Formant does the same for robotics, helping automation companies with a number of shortcuts that speed up their time to market. The company has three main threads: autonomous robots that control remotely (“running”), analytics and “why is my bot so dumb” — or “monitoring,” as Formant undoubtedly prefers I refer to.

The company just closed a $18 million Series A round led by SignalFire, with participation from a select group of strategic investors and investors, including Hillsven, Pelion, Goodyear Ventures, Thursday Ventures, Ericsson, Picus Capital and Holman Strategic Ventures.

“We founded this in 2017, when I left Google and brought my team with me. I was working on the robotics group and saw an opportunity. The insight was that robotics hardware was amazing, with people like Boston Dynamics really driving things around. Before that, we had 20-25 years of industrial robots that are incredibly accurate and powerful and make every car you see on the road,” Jeff Linnell explains the company’s genesis. “However, software was in the stone age. There is no standard operating system. Everyone builds every part of the stack, for every application. If you are starting a company, you have to build your own visualization and independence of course. But on top of that, you will also have to create your own data management And everything else. We saw an opportunity to build a generic solution that could amplify a lot of companies.”

Linnell left Google to find exactly that company. It started as an API that enables a machine or a human to ask for help from a human – imagine a cart stuck in a corner, for example. The bot will get confused and can call a friend for some help. A human can control the robot to get it for free with a D-pad or joystick and then press the “resume” button so the robot can continue on its fun path.

From there, the company created a more substantial platform to help manage advanced cases in robotics, specifically, robot fleets.

“We don’t really touch the autonomy part of the bot — getting the bot to do what you want is still our customers’ responsibility,” Linnell explains, “but when it goes off track, or when you need to figure out what happens when something goes wrong, or if you need to Determining if the robot is performing well, that’s where our software comes in.”

If your robot is stuck behind the couch, “Oh crap not again, I wish I could control it with a remote instead of having to go back in there and pull its unfortunate little scrawny body from the TV cord” use case would make sense for you. Except for the bigger, more dangerous robots that have all kinds of safes, so they stop without just bumping into things until the batteries run out.

Other use cases may need a little extra context.

“Imagine You work in a service department at a company that makes floor cleaning robots. I noticed a trend that a certain group of bots were struggling in a certain area of ​​the warehouse. You see this happen, or someone calls customer support to file a complaint, or a customer says “Hey, we’re doing poorly here.” With Formant, you can go back in time and look at logs, and check out the moment customers say this is happening,” Linnell explains. “You might notice Wi-Fi strength dropping in this corner of the warehouse.”

Of course, if Wi-Fi goes down completely, most bots are smart enough to report it, but things like low connectivity or timeouts can be a nightmare to troubleshoot without sending a (expensive) customer service engineer to the warehouse or using something like Formant program. The solution may be as simple as connecting a Wi-Fi extender.

“A third use might be that the business owner may want to measure the ROI of this fleet of 200 robots operating in a particular warehouse, with efficiency statistics,” Linnell explains. “How often do they need help? How much time do they spend doing their jobs independently, versus manually controlling? Think of it as an analytics workflow, where you look at dashboards that will show you data trends over days, months, weeks and years.”

Most customers come to Formant to solve one of these three specific problems, the company claims, and then stay for the complete solution.

The final benefit is that Formant offers a platform to get a broader view of the performance of a number of different robot manufacturers.

“Some of our biggest customers work with a diverse fleet of bots. They might have an autonomy department that takes care of bots from multiple vendors, and they might need a unified data platform that can talk to a Boston Dynamics bot, a Fanuc bot, and a DJI drone — and they have all that data in the same place,” says Lynell. “With Formant, they will know what is happening within the framework of the operation of their fleet of heterogeneous robots. No individual manufacturers of robots are able to provide that.”

The company suggests that its software has been used to power tens of thousands of robots, and it will spend the next 12-18 months doubling the size of the company, building engineering and sales operations, and expanding into Europe. The company does hiring in a few locations, including Pittsburgh.

“We acquired a remote stealth company several years ago, and it was based in Pittsburgh,” Linnell says, describing the city as the epicenter of automation. “They have Carnegie Mellon, probably the most self-driving company, even from the Bay Area. There is a huge robotics community in Pittsburgh, and we’re going to want to keep investing there. I think it’s one of the hubs, as well as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Bay Area. The cost of doing business in Pittsburgh is different. Absolutely – you have the best talent, but it is very cost-effective.”

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