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Clearpath Robotics raises $30-million to bring drones to factory floors

A Jackal robot is shown at the Clearpath Robotics warehouse in Kitchener, Ont.

Hannah Yoon/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Clearpath Robotics, a Kitchener-Waterloo-area startup focused on self-driving vehicles for industrial uses, has raised $30-million (U.S.) in new venture capital from iNovia Capital with participation from GE Ventures, Caterpillar Ventures, Eclipse Ventures, RRE Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank.

The money will be used to expand the company's OTTO Motors division. The OTTO vehicles look like squarish, rolling tables but are actually robotic drones that can be programmed to carry freight around, helping to replace tow truck drivers and other vehicle operators in manufacturing and assembly factories or plants. As well-funded players invest in self-driving passenger vehicles that come with myriad ethical and regulatory challenges, Clearpath says it has a way to shortcut development on automation.

"Indoor environments are more controlled. Commercializing self-driving presents a much more rapid scale opportunity," says Matt Rendall, chief executive officer and co-founder of Clearpath. This type of automation is particularly valuable in North America where highly skilled manufacturing workers often command premium wages.

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"If you're a manufacturer in Canada, you have to be very advanced or you've already been shut down. Where we're seeing the strongest reception is in vehicle manufacturing, not just auto, anything from a lawnmower to an aircraft, because the in-factory supply chain for getting parts from a warehouse to a assembly is very complex. A business in a higher-labour-cost region is paying that person to walk or drive instead of working on very high-value output."

The OTTO systems come in three parts: typically a minimum of three automated vehicles, a super-charger station to keep the batteries primed 24/7 and Clearpaths' logistics software for controlling the vehicle's path. A typical install can cost anywhere from $250,000 (Canadian) to $2-million. GE and John Deere are among the company's already employing OTTO devices in plants inside North America.

Mr. Rendall, who co-founded the company in 2008, says the cash is needed to scale up the sales, logistics and engineering teams. Currently, Clearpath has 150 employees, but needs to double in the coming year and potentially double again the year after that, he said. In 2015, the company raised $14-million (U.S.), and is part of a burgeoning automation and robotics hub that includes Aeryon Labs, Avidbots and Deep Trekker in nearby Cambridge, Ont.

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