SkyMul’s drones secure rebar on the fly to speed up construction

There are many jobs in the construction industry that fall under the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” category said to be ripe for automation — but only a few can actually be taken on with today’s technology. One such job is the crucial but repetitive task of rebar tying, which a startup called SkyMul is aiming to completely automate using fleets of drones.

Unless you’ve put together reinforced concrete at some point in your life, you may not know what rebar tying is. The steel rebar that provides strength to concrete floors, walls, and other structures is held in place during the pouring process by tying it to the other rebar where the rods cross. For a good-size building or bridge this can easily be thousands of ties — and the process is generally done manually.

Rodbusters (as rebar tying specialists are called, or so I’m told) are masters of the art of looping a short length of plastic or wire around an intersection between two pieces of rebar, then twisting and tying it tightly so that the rods are secured in multiple directions. It must be done precisely and efficiently, and so it is — but it’s backbreaking, repetitive work. Though any professional must feel pride in what they do, I doubt anyone cherishes the chronic pain they get from doing that task thousands of times in an hour. As you might expect, rodbusters have high injury rates and develop chronic issues.

Automation of rebar tying is tricky because it happens in so many different circumstances. A prominent semi-robotic solution is the TyBot, which is a sort of rail-mounted gantry that suspends itself over the surface — but while this makes sense for a bridge, it makes far less for the 20th floor of an office building.

Animated image of a drone floating over rebar and tying it together at intersections.

Image Credits: SkyMul

Enter SkyMul, a startup still in the very early stages but with a compelling pitch: rebar tying done by a fleet of drones. When you consider that the tying process doesn’t involve too much force, and that computer vision has gotten more than good enough to locate the spots that need work… it starts sounding kind of obvious.

CEO and co-founder Eohan George said that they evaluated a number of different robotic solutions but that drones are the only ones that make sense. The only legged robots with the dexterity to pick their way through the rebar are too expensive, and treads and wheels are too likely to move the unsecured rebar.

Diagram showing how SkyMul's drones map an area of rebar then divide it up for tying.

Image Credits: SkyMul

Here’s how the company’s SkyTy system works. First, a mapper drone flies over the site to mark the boundaries and then, in an automated closer flyover, to build a map of the rebar itself and where the ties will need to go. This map is then double-checked by the rodbuster technician running the show, which George said only takes about a minute per thousand square feet of rebar (though that adds up quickly).

Then the tying drones are released, as many as needed or wanted. Each one moves from spot to spot, hovering and descending until its tying tool (much like those used by human rodbusters) spans the rebar intersection; the tie is wrapped, twisted, and the drone is off to the next spot. They need their batteries swapped every 25 minutes, which means they generally have time to put down 70-80 ties; right now each drone does one tie every 20 seconds, which is in line with humans, who can do it faster but generally go at about that speed or slower, according to numbers George cited.

It’s difficult to estimate the cost savings and value of the work SkyTy does, because the value of the labor varies widely. In some places rodbusters are earning north of $80/hour, meaning the draw of automation is in cost savings. But in other markets the pay is less than a third of that, which compounded with the injury risk makes rodbusters a scarce quantity — so the value is in availability and reliability. Drone-based tying seems to offer value one way or the other, but that means the business model is somewhat in flux as SkyMul figures out what makes the most sense. Generally contractors at one level or another would lease and eventually own their own drones, though other methods are being looked into.

Animated image of a computer-generated grid overlaid on images of rebar.

Image Credits: SkyMul

The system offers value-add services as well, for instance the precise map of the rebar generated at the beginning, which can be archived and used later for maintenance, quality assurance, comparison with plans, and other purposes. Once a contractor is convinced it’s as good or better than the manually-produced ones currently used, this could save hours, turning a 3-day job into a 2-day job or otherwise simplifying logistics.

The plan at the company is to first offer SkyTy as an option for bridge construction, which is a simpler environment than a multi-story building for the drones. The market there is on the order of $30-40 million per year for rebar tying services, providing an easier path to the more complex deployments.

SkyMul is looking for funding, having spun out of Georgia Tech and going through Comcast-NBC accelerator The Farm and then being granted a National Science Foundation SBIR Phase I award (with hopes for a Phase II). They have demonstrated the system but have yet to enter into any pilot programs — there are partnerships in the works but the construction business isn’t a nimble one and a drone-based solution isn’t trivial to swap in for human rodbusters on short notice. But once a few projects are under its belt the company seems likely to find serious traction among forward-thinking contractors.

Tonal triples its physical stores with Nordstrom partnership

Tonal, maker of the smart home fitness trainer, announced it is more than tripling the number of physical locations it sells devices in through a new partnership with Nordstrom.

Starting this month, Tonal will have 50-square-foot stations in the women’s activewear departments of at least 40 Nordstrom locations across the U.S., bringing the total number of Tonal physical locations to 60 by the end of 2021. Shoppers will be able to walk in or book appointments to try Tonal devices and purchase them through employees on-hand.

“As we looked to expand our retail footprint and strategy, we looked to the retail landscape, and we really feel like Nordstrom says ‘best-in-class’ — the department store is well-suited to succeed in a COVID and post-COVID world,” explained Christopher Stadler, Tonal’s CMO.

Tonal, which manufactures a wall-mounted device with a digital weight system that emulates various traditional gym stations, already operates 16 locations across the country with devices shoppers can try and work out to, with plans to open four additional showrooms later this year. But the partnership with Nordstrom, which expects overall sales growth of 25% in 2021, marks a first-of-its-kind for at-home fitness makers. Peloton, for instance, operates a larger network of dedicated showrooms in the U.S., Canada, Germany and the UK, but it has yet to partner with an outside retailer to display and demo its bikes and treadmills.

An example of Tonal’s placement at a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek. Photo via Tonal.

Tonal’s physical expansion arrives amid a boom in demand for at-home equipment during the pandemic. According to Stadler, sales of Tonal equipment surged 800% from December 2019 to December 2020, causing 10-12 week wait times for deliveries. Those delays are somewhat comparable to Peloton, which has also faced significant delivery wait times in recent months and currently reports 6-10 week delays — an issue Peloton CEO John Foley acknowledged and apologized for in a note to users.

Tonal, for its part, is working to address shipment delays. According to Stadler, the startup has significantly ramped up production of devices, increased employee headcount, and in some cases, now air-ships equipment from Taiwan to the U.S. to meet demand.

“We have seen extraordinary demand for Tonal, and we’re working aggressively around the clock to produce, deliver and install Tonals faster and faster,” says Stadler. “We’ve absolutely ramped up production, and all facets of the organization are rallying to deliver our customer orders as quickly as we can.”


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The keyboards of TechCrunch’s editorial staff

Few things are more personal than a keyboard and yet they are often overlooked by Work From Home guides. Why use the standard issue keyboard when there are so many options available? This is a sampling of some of the keyboards used by TechCrunch’s editorial staff. Some are boring, some are for different languages, and each one is kind of dirty.

Excuse the dust, grim, and general dirtiness of the following. Keyboards are gross and hard to clean and we did the best we could getting our keyboards photo-ready. I used two cans of air on my keyboard and it still looks like a toy in a preschool sandbox.

Please note this post is not sponsored and TechCrunch does not earn anything from keyboard sales. We just want to show off our gear.

Danny Crichton

Image Credits: Danny Crichton / Danny Crichton

Working across borders is hard — working across languages is even harder. So getting a foreign language keyboard (mine is Korean) has been a godsend, if only because after two decades of using a computer, I still peck at a keyboard like I don’t know the location of the keys.

Now, should you get a foreign language keyboard? Good god no. Certainly don’t buy it overseas like I originally did when I was a foreign correspondent in Seoul, since apparently warranties don’t transfer globally. Also, the E key finally busted on my last “space white” keyboard (unfortunately, E is about as common in English as ㄷ/ㄸ is in Korean so that key gets a lot of abuse), and let’s just say the world is not designed to special order individual keys in a foreign language in the United States.

So I bought a new space grey keyboard. And then Apple said they couldn’t find a replacement Korean keyboard E key in white, so they gave me a free keyboard because Apple is nice. So now I have two space grey Korean keyboards, one on my desk and one sitting in storage for when I invariably destroy the one I’m typing this on. Don’t buy a foreign language keyboard. Actually, don’t buy a keyboard at all. Certainly don’t be a writer. Just yell in a Clubhouse room and let’s move to the next, post-text century.

Devin Coldewey

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey

I just acquired this Varmilo V87M tenkeyless with PBT keycaps and Cherry Red switches. It’s got a great solid feel and is very comfortable to type on, and has a deeper sound than some more clacky keyboards I’ve used. But I don’t like the placement of the media keys.

Before this I had an all-black Ducky One with side-printed key labels, which I much prefer. But I ordered it with Cherry Black switches, which it turns out are uncomfortable for me to use – they take a bit more force and have a sort of “bump” in the middle, and my body didn’t like it. I did, however, like the DIY feel of adjusting the dipswitches and programming the media keys in as well, though I totally get it’s not for everyone.

I wish that I could combine the feel and build of the Varmilo with the keycaps and customizability of the Ducky and the media controls of the Das Keyboard 4, with its lovely volume wheel. But I’m tempted by non-Cherry switches now that their patents have expired and the market is wide open. Someone send me one of those little switch samplers!

Romain Dillet

Image Credits: Romain Dillet

Here’s my boring Apple keyboard. It’s a French keyboard so it’s going to look all weird if you’ve used QWERTY keyboards your entire life. It works, it’s reliable and I can type for hours and hours… The most important part is that I don’t think about it so I can just focus on what I’m writing.

Lucas Matney

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

The fact that Apple charges $149 for its wireless space grey Magic Keyboard when the silver variant goes for $129 might seem like an oddity for a company worth $2.2 trillion, but maybe the fact that they have suckered a rube like myself into paying an extra $20 for a dark grey colorway is the reason they have achieved such ridiculous success.

In recent years, Apple has opted to stay conservative with the entry prices for some of their hardware but they have also begun jacking up the prices of accessories for those devices. My desire to have an external keyboard that matched all of my other tech stuff says more about me than it does Apple, but come on Tim, do you really need that extra $20 from me?

Darrell Etherington

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington / Darrell Etherington

The Keychron K3 Ultra-slim is a mechanical keyboard with all of the benefits of a small footprint and low-profile design, while retaining the satisfying typing action of much larger gadgets. It come in either white or RGG backlights, with a choice of Gateron Mechanical or Keychron’s own Optical switches, in a range of options depending on whether you like softer, clickier or more resistive typing action.

Taylor Hatmaker

I bought this keyboard when I built my new PC last month. I generally use an Apple keyboard for work and mostly game with a PS4 controller so I hadn’t used it much. But a few weeks ago I spilled coffee on my main keyboard for the first time in my life. I tried to used a Logitech K380 I have as a substitute but even though it’s pretty new a few of its keys squeak which makes me feel crazy.

Now I’ve subbed in my admittedly beautiful rainbow machine the Cooler Master SK622 as my day to day keyboard. It’s my first mechanical keyboard! I went with blue switches because I don’t like the feel of the red ones, but it is a bit hard to get used to the noise. Ideally I’d probably prefer brown switches! It feels pretty good though, even for someone (me) who types pretty fast but in a very wacky way because I never learned to do it the right way. Maybe it’s time for Mario Teaches Typing after all.

Natasha Lomas

There’s not much to say about the tool of my trade – except that it could do with a good clean. The white is definitely not as crisp as Apple would like at this point. The lettering on the ‘S’ key has also worn a bit for some reason. Other than that I’ve no complaints. I had to stop relying on the MBP laptop keyboard because it’s so faulty (sticky ‘B’ and ‘N’ keys which either don’t type or double type in faulty keyboard roulette). I like the Magic keyboard’s compact size. The battery also lasts a decent amount of time before you have to go hunting for overpriced Apple dongles in order to juice it back up.

I have one complaint: The Bluetooth connection seems to go a bit funky after a while because hitting CAPS Lock can fire up the MBP’s spinning wheel ‘o death for no good reason. Switching the keyboard’s Bluetooth off and back on and again seems to restore order.

 

Matt Burns

Image Credits: Matt Burns

This is the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2 with a partial set of custom keycaps. Yes, long name for a small keyboard. It’s not perfect and yet I love it. Don’t worry. It still has a number pad and media controls. These are accessed through a function key (the heart).

The Happy Hacking Keyboard has a longer history than most, originally designed for Unix programmers. For me, the small size is perfect for just typing, and the keys feel lovely thanks to its novel switches. This keyboard uses Topre capacitive key switches, which combine the feel of a mechanical switch with the responsiveness of a membrane-based keyboard. The result are resounding clicks and clacks, and keys that are resistant at the top and easy at the bottom. 

There are several newer versions of this keyboard with wireless connectivity and quieter key switches.


Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.


Orca wants to give boating navigation its ‘iPhone moment’

Boating is a hobby steeped in history and tradition — and so is the industry and those that support it. With worldwide connectivity, electric boats, and other technological changes dragging the sector out of old habits, Orca aims to replace the outdated interfaces by which people navigate with a hardware-software combo as slick as any other modern consumer tech.

If you’re a boater, and I know at least some of you are, you’re probably familiar with two different ways of chart-plotting, or tracking your location and route: the one attached to your boat and the one in your pocket.

The one on your boat is clunky and old-fashioned, like the GPS interface on a years-old budget sedan. The one in your pocket is better and faster — but the phone isn’t exactly seaworthy and the app drains your battery with a quickness.

Orca is a Norwegian startup from veterans of the boating and chart-plotters that leapfrogs existing products with a built-from-scratch modern interface.

“The industry hasn’t changed in the last 20 years — you have three players who own 80 percent of the business,” said co-founder and CEO Jorge Sevillano. “For them, it’s very hard to think of how software creates value. All these devices are built on a user interface that’s 10-15 years old; think about a Tomtom, lots of menus, lots of clicks. This business hasn’t had its iPhone moment, where it had to rethink its entire design. So we thought: let’s start with a blank slate and build a new experience.”

CTO and co-founder Kristian Fallro started working on something like this years ago, and his company was acquired by Navico, one of the big players Sevillano refers to. But they didn’t seem to want to move forward with the ideas, and so he and the others formed Orca to pursue them. Their first complete product opened up for pre-orders this week.

“The challenge up until now has been that you need a combination of hardware and software, so the barrier to entry was very, very high,” Fallro explained. “It’s a very protected industry — and it’s too small for Apple and Google and the big boys.”

But now with a combination of the right hardware and a totally rebuilt software stack, they think they can steal a march on the dominant companies and be ready for the inevitable new generation of boaters who can’t stand to use the old tech any more. Shuttling an SD card to and from the in-boat system and your computer to update charts? Inputting destinations via directional pad? Using a separate mobile app to check weather and tides that might bear on your route? Not exactly cutting edge.

The Orca system comprises a ruggedized industrial tablet sourced from Samsung, an off the shelf marine quality mounting arm, a custom-designed interface for quick attachment and charging, and a computing base unit that connects to the boat’s own sensors like sonar and GPS over the NMEA 2000 protocol. It’s all made to be as good or better than anything you’d find on a boat today.

So far, so similar to many solutions out there. But Orca has rebuilt everything from the ground up as a modern mobile app with all the conveniences and connections you’d expect. Routing is instantaneous and accurate, on maps that are clear and readable as those on Google and Apple Maps but clearly still of the nautical variety. Weather and tide reports are integrated, as is marine traffic. It all runs on Android or iOS, so you can also use your phone, send routes or places of interest to the main unit, and vice versa.

Several devices showing the Orca chart-plotting interface.

Image Credits: Orca

“We can build new services that chart plotters can’t even dream of including,” said Sevillano. “With the latest tide report and wind, or if there’s a commercial ship going in your way, we can update your range and route. We do updates every week with new features and bug fixes. We can iterate and adapt to user feedback faster than anyone else.”

These improvements to the most central system of the boat mean the company has ambitions for coming years beyond simply replacing the ageing gadgets at the helm.

Information collected from the boat itself is also used to update the maps in near real time — depending on what your craft is monitoring, it could be used for alerting others or authorities, for example if you encounter major waves or dangerous levels of chemicals, or detect an obstacle where none is recorded. “The Waze of the seas,” they suggested. “Our goal is to become the marine data company. The opportunities for boaters, industries related to the sea, and society are immense.”

Being flexible about the placement and features means they hope to integrate directly with boats, becoming the built-in OS for new models. That’s especially important for the up-and-coming category of electric boats, which sort of by definition buck the old traditions and tend to attract tech-savvy early adopters.

“We’re seeing people take what works on land taking it to sea. They all have the same challenge though, the biggest problem is range anxiety — and it’s even worse on the water,” said Fallro. “We’ve been talking to a lot of these manufacturers and we’re finding that building a boat is hard but building that navigation experience is even harder.”

Whether that’s entirely true probably depends on your boat-building expertise, but it’s certainly the case that figuring out an electric boat’s effective range is a devilishly difficult problem. Even after building a new boat from starting principles and advanced physical simulations to be efficient and predictable, such as Zin Boats did, the laws of physics and how watercraft work mean even the best estimate has to be completely revised every few seconds.

“Figuring out range at sea is very hard, and we think we’re one of the best out there. So we want to provide boat manufacturers a software stack with integrated navigation that helps them solve the range anxiety problem their users have,” said Fallro.

Indeed, it seems likely that prospective purchasers of such a craft would be more tempted to close the deal if they knew there was a modern and responsive OS that not only accurately tracked range but provided easy, real-time access to potential charge points and other resources. Sure, you could use your phone — and many do these days because the old chart plotters attached to their boats are so limited. But the point is that with Orca you won’t be tempted to.

The full device combo of computing core, mount, and tablet costs €1,449, with the core alone selling for €449, with a considerable discount for early bird pre-orders. (For people buying new boats, these numbers may as well be rounding errors.)

Fallro said Orca is operating with funding (of an unspecified amount) from Atomico and Nordic VC firm Skyfall Ventures, as well as angel investors including Kahoot co-founder Johan Brand. The company has its work cut out for it simply in fulfilling the orders it has collected (they are doing a brisk trade, Fallro intimated) before moving on to adding features and updating regularly as promised.

Xiaomi further localizes India supply chain via BYD, DBG partnerships

China’s Xiaomi had dominated the Indian smartphone market for three consecutive years until recently losing the top spot to Samsung. It has played by the Indian government’s rulebook to support domestic manufacturing, making smartphones in India rather than shipping them from its home country of China. Now it is further ramping up production in India by adding two new supply chain partners, BYD and DBG, the company said in an announcement on Thursday.

The move comes at a time when the Indian government is applying more pressure on Chinese tech companies. Along with TikTok, dozens of other popular Chinese apps were banned in India last June over national security concerns.

So far the hardware companies have remained largely unaffected, but worsening India-China relations won’t likely bode well for Chinese companies that are wooing Indian consumers. Xiaomi and its Chinese competitors Vivo, Oppo and Oppo-affiliated Realme together commanded as much as 64% of the Indian market in the third quarter of 2020.

This is probably the time for Chinese firms to demonstrate to the Indian government how they could make contributions to the local economy. Under the new production partnerships, Xiaomi will be able to significantly ratchet up its output in India, the company said.

The tie-up with BYD and DBG also reflects a growing trend of Chinese manufacturers setting up overseas plants to cope with rising labor costs back home and increasingly hostile trade policies against China. BYD is China’s largest electric carmaker with a long history of making electronics parts, while DBG has been a major supplier to Chinese telecom firms including Huawei. DBG has set up a production plant in Haryana and has increased Xiaomi’s local production by about 20%. BYD’s facility in Tamil Nadu is scheduled to begin operation by H1 this year.

Prior to its deals with BYD and DBG, Xiaomi was already making 99% of its smartphones in India through Apple’s long-time contract manufacturers, the Taiwanese giant Foxconn and California-based Flex.

Xiaomi also stressed that it sources locally, buying mother-boards, batteries, chargers and other components from domestic suppliers like Sunny India and NVT, which together account for over 75% of the value of its smartphones.

Separately, Xiaomi’s India business has onboarded a new partner, Ohio-based Radiant Technology, to make its smart TVs, which have been a bestseller in India. Local electronics company Dixon currently makes its smart TVs.

Xiaomi’s localization effort has led to a 60,000-strong team in India, six years after it first landed in the country, including staff in production, sales, and logistics. The company prides itself on boosting local employment. As Manu Kumar Jain, managing director for Xiaomi India, pointed out in toay’s announcement, the company added 10,000 employees in India last year. “When organizations were downsizing their workforce, we were focused on putting together the building blocks for our growth in the India market – our employees.”