AI-powered robot warehouse pickers are now ready to go to work
Covariant, a Berkeley-based startup, has come out of stealth and thinks its robots are ready for the big time.
Covariant’s cofounders (left to right): Tianhao Zhang, Rocky Duan, Peter Chen, and Pieter Abbeel. ELENA ZHUKOVA
In the summer of 2018, a small Berkeley-based robotics startup received a challenge. Knapp, a major provider of warehouse logistics technologies, was on the hunt for a new AI-powered robotic arm that could pick as many types of items as possible. So every week, for eight weeks, it would send the startup a list of increasingly difficult items—opaque boxes, transparent boxes, pill packages, socks—that covered a range of products from its customers. The startup team would buy the items locally and then, within the week, send back a video of their robotic arm transferring the items from one gray bin to another.
By the end of the challenge, executives at Knapp were floored. They had challenged many startups over six or seven years with no success and expected the same outcome this time. Instead, in every video, the startup’s robotic arm transferred every item with perfect accuracy and production-ready speed.
“Every time, we expected that they would fail with the next product, because it became more and more tricky,” says Peter Puchwein, vice president of innovation at Knapp, which is headquartered in Austria. “But the point was they succeeded, and everything really worked. We’ve never seen this quality of AI before.”