This autonomous forklift isn’t afraid to ask for help

Third Wave forklift

Robotics startup Third Wave Automation has raised $15 million in Series A funding to scale its technology aimed at bringing shared autonomy to forklifts.

Innovation Endeavors led the round, joined by seed investors from Eclipse Ventures, Homebrew VC and Toyota AI Ventures. Heartland VC also joined as a new Series A investor. 

Third Wave’s approach means the forklifts the company modifies operate autonomously most of the time, but when they encounter a new situation, they signal a need for human intervention.

This feedback creates a new learning that is shared across the entire fleet of forklifts. 

About 80% of warehouse forklift work is standardized — “the pallets have been conditioned, the payloads well wrapped,” said CEO Arshan Poursohi, who founded the company in 2018. 

The remaining 20% is more complicated, featuring “random” situations that can be hard to automate. Those are the situations Third Wave targets.

“What we did with our tech is embrace the notion that the robot recognizes when it doesn’t know how to do something, and it asks for help, actively,” Poursohi told FreightWaves.

Third Wave doesn’t make forklifts but modifies off-the-shelf equipment with its platform. Forklifts are “fantastic machines, super tough and they run forever,” he said.

The  startup’s technology also mitigates opportunities for serious accidents. Being a forklift operator is a dangerous occupation, with about 35,000 serious and 62,000 minor injuries every year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. About 900,000 forklifts are in operation in the U.S., and more than 10% are involved in an accident in a given year.

Under the Third Wave scenario, one operator can manage 20 forklifts, with the forklift operator serving a function much like that of an air traffic controller. The robots multiply the potential of the operator while also keeping the operator out of harm’s way. 

So far Third Wave has participated in two pilot projects. The company will use the new funding to build out its team and pursue additional partnerships, according to Poursohi.

Related stories: 

March of the Covid-fighting robots

Warehouse automation management startup raises $3M in seed funding

SVT Robotics raises $3.5M in seed round

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Linda Baker.