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Big Bottle: Breaking Down The Baby Formula Nightmare

Big Bottle: Breaking Down The Baby Formula Nightmare

Authored by Matt Stoller via BIG,

Big Bottle and the Baby Formula Apocalypse

As anyone…

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Big Bottle: Breaking Down The Baby Formula Nightmare

Authored by Matt Stoller via BIG,

Big Bottle and the Baby Formula Apocalypse

As anyone with an infant knows, there is a major crisis in the feeding of America’s babies right now, because parents in some areas can’t get baby formula. A few months ago, a major producer of formula - Abbott Labs - shut down its main production facilities in Sturgis, Michigan, which had been contaminated with the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii, killing two babies and injuring two others. Abbott provides 43% of the baby formula in the United States, under the brand names Similac, Alimentum and EleCare, so removing this amount of supply from the market is the short-term cause of the problem. (Abbott and Mead Johnson produce 80% of the formula in the U.S., and if you add in Nestle, that gets to 98% of the market.) The problem is not, however, that there isn’t enough formula, so much as the consolidated distribution system creates a lot of shortages in specific states.

First, it’s hard to convey what a nightmare this situation is for parents, especially those whose children require special kinds of formula because of gastrointestinal issues or food allergies. “The shortage has led us to decide to put a feeding tube in our child,” said one parent, who simply could not get the specialized formula her daughter needs.

Baby formula is not just food, but the primary or sole nutrition for a vulnerable person in a stage of life in which very specific nutritional requirements are necessary for growth. Baby formula was created during the 19th century as we developed modern food preservation techniques. Before this remarkable innovation, baby starvation was common if a mother couldn’t breastfeed her infant (which happens a lot). The invention of industrialized formula was one of those creations we take for granted, but like antibiotics and other medical and scientific advances, it was one that fundamentally changed parenthood and the family.

This shortage is showing just how reliant we are on industrialized formula. The causal factor behind the crisis is poor regulation and a consolidated and brittle supply chain. Imports from Europe are often prohibited, even if there were excess productive capacity elsewhere. I spent a bit of time calling around to people who work in formula, and the industry is basically on a war footing. Everyone is panicking, because the situation is, in short, a nightmare.

I’m going to try and lay out the situation, and explain the market structure. There are two basic mechanisms that have created a concentrated and brittle market. The first is that regulators are tough on newcomers, but soft on incumbents. And the second is that the Federal government buys more than half of the baby formula in the market, and under the guise of competitive bidding, it in fact hands out monopoly licenses for individual states. That makes it impossible to get newcomers of any scale into the market, along with the more resiliency that such competition brings. It also makes it hard to address shortages in one state with extra formula from elsewhere.

But first, let’s start by following the money.

Financial Returns or Your Baby’s Life

The simplest way to understand why there’s a shortage is to look at the incentives for the CEO of Abbott Labs. Here’s a Reuters report coming out of the company’s investor call in April, after the factory shutdown was underway. Keep in mind, the executives on this call are the people responsible for managing this vital resource, and here’s how seriously they took the problem.

“Abbott called the recall a "short-term hindrance" and said it was working closely with the regulator and has begun implementing corrective actions and enhancements to the facility.

Abbott shares rose 2.4% to $122.90 in morning trade as some analysts said the comments during the conference call allayed worries over the recall.

Despite the recall and supply chain issues, Abbott beat quarterly profit and revenue estimates in the first quarter.”

Not a single Wall Street analyst asked about the recall. Why? In some ways, it’s because it doesn’t matter that much to the bottom line. Abbott Labs is a diversified medical devices and health care company, and its nutritional segment is a relatively small part part of its business. But also, if you need baby formula, which is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and distributed by a monopoly-friendly system run by the Department of Agriculture, where else are you gonna go?

And that’s the problem. Baby formula is a shared monopoly, and we are at the mercy of Abbott Labs, Read Johnson, and Nestle. And their execs know it. So how does this shared monopoly work? Let’s start with the regulators.

The Failed Priesthood at the FDA

Entering the baby formula market is a difficult process, and takes years of work. For instance, Bobbie, which makes European-style formula with a contract manufacturer, is the first firm to come into the market in five years. Bobbie is also a direct to consumer niche firm, so it doesn’t have the scale to address the market dislocation at hand. It was a rough road getting started; the firm faced a recall and a shut down purely for manufacturing in Germany, and it had to go through millions of dollars of capital and a steep learning curve to get its product accepted by the FDA.

The reason for regulatory hurdles seems good, on the surface. Manufacturing formula is very specific, it’s not like a snack bar, it fits in somewhere between medication and food in the regulatory spectrum. Congress put extremely detailed instructions in the Infant Formula Act of 1980. To get a product approved, an entrant needs protein efficiency studies, thousands of quality tests from raw ingredients to the end product, nutritional tests to make sure it is suitable for infants, and approvals for new suppliers. There are specialized forms of formula for babies with different conditions. Naturally, starting a new formula firm takes a massive amount of time, patience, and capital.

And that’s if you just want to make a product and can even find a contract manufacturer to produce it for you. There is just one contract manufacturer of baby formula in the U.S. - Perrigo Nutritionals, and it requires a large initial order volume, which adds a hurdle to new potential firms. What about new factories? Earlier this year, a nutrition company ByHeart became just the fourth infant formula brand to have its own factory, something no one else had done in fifteen years. Certifying a factory for infant formula, like making a new product, is difficult and expensive.

Is this expense necessary? Not entirely. The institutional risk tolerance of the FDA is extraordinarily low. FDA officials see themselves as an elite priesthood, pursuing excellence merely by dint of being at the FDA. From this perspective, there is zero incentive to let new players into the baby formula market when, in their view, there are already excellent quality companies serving the market, such as Abbott Labs, Mead Johnson, and Nestle. It’s true that baby formula is overpriced in the U.S., costing about twice as much as it does throughout much of Europe. But to an FDA official, price is incidental.

The thinking goes, who wants to be the official that accidentally lets a reckless entrepreneur poison a bunch of babies, just so that there’s some competition in a market that is already delivering good products? When there is no problem at hand, there is no reason to allow innovation in the industry, or additional capacity.

The problem, of course, is that the FDA is harsh to newcomers, but deferential to incumbents. According to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, baby formula made by the big guys in the U.S. is full of dangerous brain-altering heavy metals. HBBF tested thirteen different baby formulas, and every single one had “detectable levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and/or mercury,” which are all considered to be neurotoxic, interfering with brain development and “causing permanent IQ reductions in children.”

Moreover, FDA inspections of Abbott plants are obviously a disaster. Abbott had old and dirty equipment making formula, falsified records, deceived regulators, had bad product tracing, and did not fix problems after discovery. FDA inspectors noticed problems with the plant in September, but ignored them. Then, a whistleblower told the FDA of these problems in October, but regulators didn’t even bother to interview him/her until December. Moe Tkacik, in a viral Twitter thread, persuasively laid out parallels to the Boeing/FAA disaster.

So that’s the regulatory problem. Then there’s the market structure, which creates a lumpy distribution system when there’s a shortage.

Rebates and Scams

The biggest buyer of infant formula in the U.S. is WIC, or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which is run by the Department of Agriculture. Roughly half of women get formula from WIC. Rather than food stamps, which is a set amount of cash that can be used for most products, most states only allow women to buy formula from one company, though each company offers a bunch of different brands.

To save money, the government requires states to hold auctions to get the lowest price for formula. The problem is, state agencies use a complex rebating system to give the contract for the entire state to one manufacturer, and that contract can only be changed once every four years. Here’s the USDA explaining the program.

Typically, WIC State agencies obtain substantial discounts in the form of rebates from infant formula manufacturers for each can of formula purchased through the program. In exchange for rebates, a manufacturer is given the exclusive right to provide its product to WIC participants in the State. These sole-source contracts are awarded on the basis of competitive bids. The brand of formula provided by WIC varies by State depending on which manufacturer holds the contract for that State.

This rebate system distorts the entire market in a state, because it’s just not worth having alternative formulas on a retail shelf if half of the buyers simply cannot purchase those formulas. As a result, the market tips to the WIC supplier, and that supplier raises prices on non-WIC recipients, and does so by between 26-35%.

Here’s what happened to the baby formula market in California when the WIC contract changed hands.

This whole scheme, done under the guise of welfare, is essentially a transfer of wealth from the middle class to the poor, done by enriching the baby formula cartel. The monopoly friendly program design was peddled by the anti-poverty group the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which is both on the center-left of the political spectrum and aligned with Wall Street.

This brings us back to the shortage. According to Truthout, Abbott is the monopoly provider of formula for 34 states, seven Indian tribal organizations, four territories and Washington, D.C. So that’s where we’d expect the shortages to be focused. Because of the design of the program, it’s not particularly easy to move different kinds of formula to WIC recipients.

And that, perhaps more than any actual national shortage, is the problem. Here’s the Wall Street Journal today. “The FDA said overall the nation’s infant formula manufacturers are making enough to meet demand even w/out Abbott’s main factory online. The industry sold more formula in April than it did the month before the recall, the FDA said." The White House echoed these claims, asserting that “more infant formula has been produced in the last four weeks than in the four weeks preceding the recall.”

There’s a well-known black market in formula, which speaks to the dysfunction of the distribution system. The shortages are concentrated in certain areas even if nationally there might be enough to get by. According to Heather Bottemiller Evich, there are just “6 states that had baby formula out-of-stock rates higher than 50 percent: Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota were 50-51%. Missouri was 52%. Texas was 53% and Tennessee was 54%.” But nationally, it’s not so bad.

In some ways, the problem is that there’s baby formula, but it’s not in the right place (though the Sturgis factory was a monopoly producer of lots of specialized formulas, so the actual shortage itself is a huge problem). The simplest solution here is to get aggressive and capable leadership around logistics, and then move the formula where it needs to go. We’ll have to open up imports temporarily, and move supply around the country while allowing WIC recipients to buy non-contract brands. I suspect at some point the Biden administration will get their hands on the situation, and fix it. There will be Congressional hearings, and Abbott’s CEO will get yelled at.

Longer-term, I hope there will be consequences. First, we need to explore forcing Abbott to break off its nutritional division from the rest of the firm, since it’s fairly obvious that there’s little corporate focus on making sure the baby formula division is run well. Conglomerates are usually inefficient. Second, Congress should really restructure the WIC program so that the auctions don’t create monopolies, and lumpy distribution patterns that induce regional shortages.

Finally, the FDA needs wholesale reform, since this kind of crisis seems to happen a lot. I mean, the relationship between the FDA and Abbott Labs was also behind the rapid Covid testing scandal, where FDA official Tim Stenzel - who had worked at Abbott - then approved Abbott as one of two firms to make those tests, and blocked all other entrants. That’s why rapid Covid tests were both in shortage and much more expensive in the U.S. than they are in Europe. The FDA needs to be broken up so that its drugs and food divisions are separate, and it needs to take its mandate seriously for a resilient supply chain.

In some ways, this baby formula crisis is the same problem as United having passenger David Dao being beaten up in 2017 and removed from the plane, to public horror and Congressional rage. United’s stock went up after the incident. Or it’s like nurses wearing garbage bags at the beginning of the pandemic because of our dependence on China, and the sad reality that policymakers in the last two years have refused to stop sourcing from China. Hopefully, these kinds of failures, and the public rage, are laying the groundwork for wholesale reform of our government. At every level of policymaking, we have a systemic bias against people who focus on making things, in favor of well-branded monopolists and cloistered regulators who are obsessed with fanciness instead of actual critical thinking.

And that’s no way to run a democracy.

Tyler Durden Fri, 05/13/2022 - 16:20

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Government

Sheila Ochugboju named Executive Director of Alliance for Science

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications…

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Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

Credit: Image provided/Sheila Ochugboju

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

“We are delighted that Dr. Ochugboju will soon be joining us,” said BTI President David Stern. “The Alliance plays a vital role in connecting a range of stakeholders with up-to-date and vital information about how scientific advances can contribute to the future of the planet’s health, an effort that aligns perfectly with BTI’s mission to advance and communicate scientific discovery in plant biology to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health.”

“We are fortunate to have someone with Sheila’s experience, connections and vision in this role,” Stern added.

Ochugboju is a leader in science communication and has been a global advocate for science technology and innovation for more than 20 years. She was most recently the Head of Strategic Communications at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), supporting vaccine delivery communication across Africa and advocating for vaccine equity.

She is also a founding member of the Network of African Women Environmentalists (NAWE), leading in the development of flagship initiatives and products such as the Earth Science Cafes, The Youth Earth Guardians and Landscape Mentors network and the Earth Reflections Podcast, which was rated amongst the leading environment podcasts in Africa in 2020.

“I am excited to join the Boyce Thompson Institute, because together with the Alliance for Science we can offer new lenses, tools, and partnerships to transform how the world understands the role of science in addressing global challenges,” said Ochugboju. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and now food security challenges are teaching everyone that good science communication can literally save lives and livelihoods.”

Founded in 2014, AfS is a global communications initiative that seeks to counter misinformation about agricultural biotechnology, climate change, nuclear power, vaccines, COVID-19 and other contemporary science issues.

To support its work, the Alliance relies on a global network of about 14,000 science allies who engage in their local communities to advance science-based policies. AfS has trained more than 900 science champions, including scientists, farmers, journalists, healthcare professionals and students, in 48 countries to communicate effectively about biotechnology.

“After a comprehensive executive search, we are thrilled to have found someone like Dr. Ochugboju, who has the knowledge and ability to broaden the horizon of the Alliance for Science and bring resources to counter misinformation across a more substantial expanse of scientific endeavor, especially including climate change,” said Ronnie Coffman, Professor of Global Development at Cornell University and Interim Director of AfS.  

Ochugboju graduated with a degree in Medical Biochemistry and then received her Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry from Royal Holloway, University of London in 1996. She was awarded the Daphne Jackson Trust Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford in 1998.

She has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In 2016, she received a WINGS WorldQuest Women of Discovery Award for developing and leading pioneering African science, technology and innovation projects. Ochugboju was also appointed as a Global Roving Ambassador for the county government of Kisumu, Kenya, in charge of the portfolio for Transformative Science and Urban Resilience.

About Boyce Thompson Institute:

Opened in 1924, Boyce Thompson Institute is a premier life sciences research institution located in Ithaca, New York. BTI scientists conduct investigations into fundamental plant and life sciences research with the goals of increasing food security, improving environmental sustainability in agriculture, and making basic discoveries that will enhance human health. Throughout this work, BTI is committed to inspiring and educating students and to providing advanced training for the next generation of scientists. BTI is an independent nonprofit research institute that is also affiliated with Cornell University. For more information, please visit BTIscience.org.

 

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International

How Crowded Are Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Ships Right Now?

Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

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Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

When Freedom of the Seas sailed from Miami on July 2, 2021, it marked Royal Caribbean International's (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report return to North American sailing after being shut down since March 2020. 

That sailing has less than 1,000 people on it, mostly loyal cruisers eager to get back to sea no matter what the rules were (as well as a fair amount of company executives.

That ship can hold 4,375 passengers at full capacity, according to Ship Technology and on that July sailing, it felt empty and crew seemed to outnumber passengers. 

At night, in the British Pub, the crowd was essentially me, two other journalists, and the occasional person who wandered by. 

That made it, perhaps, too easy to get a drink, and while it was a wonderful experience, that sailing only felt normal when everyone onboard took to the upper decks to cheer sail away and celebrate the Fourth of July,

I sailed on Freedom on that July sailing, then again in September, October, November, December, and then again in May.

I sailed Odyssey of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas in between January and May. 

The crowds got progressively bigger through the fall, but even the December sailing (a three-day weekend, which in pre-pandemic times would be at or near capacity) still had a limited capacity.

Royal Caribbean steadily increased the number of people on its ships, with some slight pauses in that as new covid variants popped up and Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report has followed roughly the same model.   

Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cruise Lines Capacity Is Coming Back

How crowded will my cruise be? 

This has been a question seemingly every experienced cruiser has asked. In the summer and fall, that answer was "not at all," and later "not as much as usual," but the numbers of passengers onboard has slowly moved back to normal, even reaching it on some sailings.

Cruise lines generally don't offer a lot of comment on why they might be limiting capacity when technically they no longer have. 

Crew concerns, including not being able to onboard new crew members to allow for full sailings due to slow visa processing times and keeping rooms open fr potential covid quarantines have kept some ships below their full complement of passengers.

Demand, of course, factors in as well. Royal Caribbean CFO Naftali Holtz commented on where his company stands now during its first-quarter earnings call.

"I'd like to comment on capacity and load factor expectations over the upcoming period. We plan to restart operations on all remaining ships by the end of June. 

"We plan to operate about 10.3 million APCDs [available passenger cruise days] during the second quarter, and we expect load factors of approximately 75% to 80%," he said. 

"Our load factor expectations reflect the higher occupancy we are seeing in the Caribbean and lower expectations for repositioning voyages and early season Europe sailings."

It's clear that demand is a factor when it comes to why certain sailings are sailing with fewer passengers than others. 

Carnival has had to limit the cabins it has been selling on its United Kingdom-based Cunard line due to staffing issues.

“As you may have seen in the news, the wider impact of Covid-19 is affecting hospitality and is disrupting airlines and as such this is impacting the number of crew members we are able to get to our ships,” said the company in a statement.

“We naturally want to ensure that all guests across the fleet experience the high standards of service on board that they would expect from Cunard and which we are committed to delivering,” the company added. 

“We are therefore limiting the number of guests sailing as we build crew numbers back up."

Normal Cruise Crowds Are Coming

Once staffing issues return to normal — something that is slowly happening — the biggest concern may be whether the economy slows demand. 

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects his company to get close to normal over the summer during the cruise line's first-quarter earnings call.

"We're well on our way back to full cruise operations, with three-quarters of our capacity having resumed guest operations and a plan to return the balance of the fleet for the summer season. And while the conversation around covid-19 is greatly reduced, we still have to and are successfully actively managing," he said.

And while neither Carnival's nor Royal Caribbean's CEO said it directly, passengers sailing this summer will likely experience passenger counts in line with tradition. 

That does not mean some sailings won't have limited capacities, or sell poorly, but many will not as long as demand remains within historical norms.

 

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Spread & Containment

Lab, crab and robotic rehab

I was in Berkeley a couple of months back, helping TechCrunch get its proverbial ducks in a row before our first big climate event (coming in a few weeks,…

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I got previews of a number of projects I hope to share with you in the newsletter soon, but one that really caught my eye was FogROS, which was just announced as part of the latest ROS (robot operating system) rollout. Beyond a punny name that is simultaneously a reference to the cloud element (fog/cloud — not to mention the fact that the new department has killer views of San Francisco and frequent visitor, Karl) and problematic French cuisine, there’s some really compelling potential here.

I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of cloud-based processing quite a bit the last several years, independent of my writing about robots. Specifically, a number of companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have been betting big on cloud gaming. What do you do when you’ve seemingly pushed a piece of hardware to its limit? If you’ve got low enough latency, you can harness remote servers to do the heavy lifting. It’s something that’s been tried for at least a decade, to varying effect.

Image Credits: ROS

Latency is, of course, a major factor in gaming, where being off by a millisecond can dramatically impact the experience. I’m not fully convinced that experience is where it ought to be quite yet, but it does seem the tech has graduated to a point where off-board processing makes practical sense for robotics. You can currently play a console game on a smartphone with one of those services, so surely we can produce smaller, lighter-weight and lower-cost robots that rely on a remote server to complete resource-intensive tasks like SLAM processing.

The initial application will focus on AWS, with plans to reach additional services like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Watch this space. There are many reasons to be excited. Honestly, there’s a lot to be excited about in robotics generally right now. This was one of the more fun weeks in recent memory.

V Bionic's exoskeleton glove shown without its covering.

Image Credits: V Bionic

Let’s start with the ExoHeal robotic rehabilitation gloves. The device, created by Saudi Arabian V Bionic, nabbed this year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup. The early-stage team is part of a proud tradition of healthcare exoskeletons. In this case, it’s an attempt to rehab the hand following muscle and tendon injuries. Team leader Zain Samdani told TechCrunch:

Flexor linkage-driven movement gives us the flexibility to individually actuate different parts of each finger (phalanges) whilst keeping the device portable. We’re currently developing our production-ready prototype that utilizes a modular design to fit the hand sizes of different patients.

Image Credits: Walmart

This is the third week in a row Walmart gets a mention here. First it was funding for GreyOrange, which it partnered with in Canada. Last week we noted a big expansion of the retail giant’s deal with warehouse automation firm, Symbotic. Now it’s another big expansion of an existing deal — this time dealing with the company’s delivery ambitions.

Like Walmart’s work with robotics, drone delivery success has been…spotty, at best. Still, it’s apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is on this one, with a deal that brings DroneUp delivery to 34 sites across six U.S. states. Quoting myself here:

The retailer announced an investment in the 6-year-old startup late last year, following trial deliveries of COVID-19 testing kits. Early trials were conducted in Bentonville, Arkansas. This year, Arizona, Florida, Texas and DroneUp’s native Virginia are being added to the list. Once online, customers will be able to choose from tens of thousands of products, from Tylenol to hot dog buns, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Freigegeben für die Berichterstattung über das Unternehemn Wingcopter bis zum 25.01.2026. Mit Bitte um Urhebervermerk v.l.: Jonathan Hesselbarth, Tom Plümmer und Ansgar Kadura von Wingcopter GmbH. Image Credits: © Jonas Wresch / KfW

There are still more question marks around this stuff than anything, and I’ve long contended that drone delivery makes the most sense in remote and otherwise hard to reach areas. That’s why something like this Wingcopter deal is interesting. Over the next five years, the company plans to bring 12,000 of its fixed-wing UAVs to 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. It will cover spots that have traditionally struggled with infrastructural issues that have made it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies through more traditional means.

“With the looming food crisis on the African continent triggered by the war in Ukraine, we see great potential and strong social impact that drone-delivery networks can bring to people in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by getting food to where it is needed most,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. “Especially in remote areas with weak infrastructure and those areas that are additionally affected by droughts and other plagues, Wingcopter’s delivery drones will build an air bridge and provide food from the sky on a winch to exactly where it is needed.”

Legitimately exciting stuff, that.

Image Credits: Dyson

In more cautiously optimistic news, Dyson dropped some interesting news this week, announcing that it has been (and will continue) pumping a lot of money into robotic research. Part of the rollout includes refitting an aircraft hangar at Hullavington Airfield, a former RAF station in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England that the company purchased back in 2016.

Some numbers from the company:

Dyson is halfway through the largest engineering recruitment drive in its history. Two thousand people have joined the tech company this year, of which 50% are engineers, scientists, and coders. Dyson is supercharging its robotics ambitions, recruiting 250 robotics engineers across disciplines including computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics, and expects to hire 700 more in the robotics field over the next five years. The master plan: to create the UK’s largest, most advanced, robotics center at Hullavington Airfield and to bring the technology into our homes by the end of the decade.

The primary project highlighted is a robot arm with a number of attachments, including a vacuum and a human-like robot hand, which are designed to perform various household tasks. Dyson has some experience building robots, primarily through its vacuums, which rely on things like computer vision to autonomously navigate. Still, I say “cautiously optimistic,” because I’ve seen plenty of non-robotics companies showcase the technology as more of a vanity project. But I’m more than happy to have Dyson change my mind.

Image Credits: Hyundai

Hyundai, of course, has been quite aggressive in its own robotics dreams, including its 2020 acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The carmaker this week announced that part of its massive new $10 billion investment plans will include robotics, with a focus of actually bringing some of its far-out concepts to market.

Another week, another big round for logistics/fulfillment robotics, as Polish firm Nomagic raised $22 million to expand its offerings. The company’s primary offering is a pick and place arm that can move and sort small goods. Khosla Ventures and Almaz Capital led the round, which also featured European Investment Bank, Hoxton Ventures, Capnamic Ventures, DN Capital and Manta Ray.

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on counter tops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

We finally got around to reviewing Amazon’s limited-edition home robot, Astro, and Haje’s feelings were…mixed:

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

A tiny robot crab scuttles across the frame. Image Credits: Northwestern University

And finally, a tiny robot crab from Northwestern University. The little guy can be controlled remotely using lasers and is small enough to sit on the side of a penny. “Our technology enables a variety of controlled motion modalities and can walk with an average speed of half its body length per second,” says lead researcher, Yonggang Huang. “This is very challenging to achieve at such small scales for terrestrial robots.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Scuttle, don’t walk to subscribe to Actuator.

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