Amazon acquires Canvas Technology for safe mobile robot navigation

The number of autonomous mobile robot providers has grown in the past few years, as e-commerce order fulfillment and other warehouse operations benefit from improving navigation and safety systems. Inc. yesterday acquired Canvas Technology Inc. for an unspecified amount. How will this affect the development and demand for autonomous mobile robots?

When Amazon acquired Kiva Systems Inc. for $775 million in 2012, it took one of the early leaders in mobile robots for logistics off the market. It rebranded North Reading, Mass.-based Kiva as Amazon Robotics. The online retailer had rolled out more than 100,000 robots internally by 2017.

As a result, the so-called Amazon effect prompted other startups to develop and offer automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to retailers and third-party logistics (3PL) companies. Many of them, including Canvas Technology, are at Automate and ProMat 2019 in Chicago this week.

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Amazon uses more than just the Kiva robots, which bring shelves of goods to human pickers. The choreographed movement of multiple robots takes place on purpose-built warehouse floors. Amazon recently added safety vests to warehouse worker gear, so Canvas Technology’s systems could help Amazon in existing and smaller facilities.

Boulder, Colo.-based Canvas Technology previously raised seed round investment from Visionnaire Ventures in 2015 and 2016 and $15 million in Series A funding from Playground Global in late 2017. AME Cloud Ventures, Morado Ventures, and Xplorer Capital have also participated. Canvas’ staff includes Kiva Systems alumni.

“This acquisition makes a perfect addition to the Amazon portfolio,” said Mike Oitzman, managing editor at The Mobile Robot Guide. “The Canvas Technology solution will augment the person-to-goods workflow in Amazon warehouses.”

Amazon’s purchase of Canvas Technology is part of a wave of recent transactions around mobile robots. In March 2019, there was approximately $183 million in investments in lidar and mobile robot companies. In February, Amazon participated in a $530 million Series B round for Aurora, which is developing self-driving technology.

Canvas Technology uses “spatial AI” to enable mobile robots to navigate safely around people in dynamic environments. It claimed that its combination of sensors and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software can enable AMRs to operate without relying on a prior map. The robots can continuously update a shared map, according to the company.

Canvas said its 3-D cameras and navigation technology can be applied to autonomous indoor and outdoor systems, and the Canvas Autonomous Cart is used in warehouses and factories. Amazon could also apply Canvas’ safety systems to its Scout delivery robots, which are in trials in Washington state, and its Vesta home robot project.

Amazon responded to a request for comments with the following statement: “We are inspired by Canvas Technology’s innovations, and share a common vision for a future where people work alongside robotics to further improve safety and the workplace experience. We look forward to working with Canvas Technology’s fantastic team to keep inventing for customers.”