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Robotic Research pulls in $228M to expand off-road autonomy business

First capital raise in 20 years dedicated to expanding commercial efforts including drayage

Robotic Research, a 20-year-old developer of autonomous technology, has completed its first capital raise, a Series A round of $228 million. (Photo: Robotic Research)

Robotic Research, best known for its leader-follower autonomous military trucks, made it 20 years without raising outside money. Defense contracts and other pay-as-you-go customers put black ink on its balance sheet and cash in the bank.

Now it has more. The private Clarksburg, Maryland, company has completed a $228 million Series A funding round. 

Watch now: A plug-and-play approach to autonomous trucking

“We’re unique in the sense that we are probably the only company in autonomy that has always been cash positive and has always created revenue,” Alberto Lacaze, co-founder and president, told FreightWaves. “We have [been making autonomous technology] for a very long time. We’re not looking for money to make new technology.”

Robotic Research started and continues to be primarily involved in autonomous applications for the military, off-highway vehicles and transit buses, including Canada’s NFI Inc. (OTC: NFYEF), and its subsidiary New Flyer.   

“Twenty years ago the only customer was the Department of Defense. Nobody was interested on the commercial side, mainly because the cost of the sensors was too high.

alberto lacaze, co-founder and president, robotic research

“Twenty years ago the only customer was the Department of Defense,” Lacaze said. “Nobody was interested on the commercial side, mainly because the cost of the sensors was too high. The vehicles we deployed with the military [had] very expensive systems. The pricing of the sensors have come down significantly.”

You’re in the Army now

Robotic Research created the software stack and the hardware kit used on nearly 100 Army vehicles deployed on several U.S. bases. 

The Army calls autonomous trucking leader-follower — a driver in one vehicle is electronically linked to as many as seven other vehicles without drivers. They are used in supply missions, ordnance clearing and other duties deemed risky for soldiers.

The military life for an autonomous truck is not always as easy as the autonomous shuttle Robotic Research created to run between the Wounded Warrior barracks and the base hospital in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. 

“The advantage that we have working with the military is that it gives us a gigantic amount of edge cases,” Lacaze said, referring to unanticipated and challenging conditions like windstorms. “A lot of the technological development actually happens in those edge cases. A normal day for the military is an edge case on the commercial side.”

Cash for commercial scaling

Robotic Research has deployed its AutoDrive autonomy kit for on- and off-road commercial use in harsh, unstructured environments across a variety of complex operational design domains. It wants to use the money from SoftBank Vision Fund 2, Enlightenment Capital, Henry Crown and Co., and Luminar Technologies Inc. to scale that business.

A startup maker of light detecting and ranging radar (lidar) for autonomous vehicles, Luminar made its first outside investment since going public in December 2020 through a reverse merger with special purpose acquisition company Gores Metropoulos. Luminar’s backers include billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. 

The Luminar (NASDAQ: LAZR) involvement could bring more value than just a financial investment. It has deals with Volvo Cars and Daimler Trucks to provide long-range lidars. While Daimler all but swore off platooning in 2019, it left open the door to return.

Autonomous now

Though it has driverless trucks in operation, Robotic Research does not see itself as a direct competitor to the startups pursuing on-highway hub-to-hub Level 4 autonomy before the middle of the decade.

“We have taken a very different approach,” Lacaze said. “Our goal has always been to stay in verticals where we can deploy now. We don’t need to wait until 2024 or 2025. We have also looked for areas where the regulations are not as onerous, that allow us to operate without having to go through three years of certifications and so forth.”

Think off-highway vocations like lumber hauling from tree harvesting or yard tractors in ports and large distribution sites. Robotic Research sees autonomy as an ideal application for drayage.

“Our goal has always been to create what we call 360-degree autonomy,” Lacaze said. “If you think about a truck, a truck doesn’t only live on the highway. It lives in the yard for a while, then it lives in the last mile. So it has all of those different stages of delivering a single package. And we have been concentrating on creating all this that goes from dock to dock.”

Picking up Peloton?

Some of the money from the capital raise could be used to complete a rumored acquisition of platooning pioneer Peloton Technologies, which has fallen on hard times as attention in the autonomous trucking space shifted to high-autonomy Level 4 operations from two-truck platoons with a main advantage of fuel savings.

“We are under [nondisclosure agreements] and things like that, so we cannot talk too much about this,” Lacaze said. “I think that they had interesting technology. I think that very short-distance platooning has application under certain regulations, if those regulations allowed. 

“That’s not the answer for everything, only a very particular niche market. How big that niche is and how quick that niche becomes profitable is going to depend more on regulations than on technology.”

Peloton co-founder Steve Boyd declined to comment specifically on Robotic Research as a suitor.

“Excellent discussions continue with a group of prospects towards finalizing the acquisition of our company,” Boyd told FreightWaves. “At the current pace, the process should be completed near the end of the year. All the companies in our discussions have been raising funds this year.”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.