A new breed of human-centric mobile robots


By: Daniel de Wolff

Founded in 2017 by a team of world-class roboticists and machine learning engineers, Skylla Technologies has emerged from stealth mode intent on revolutionizing automation with an ever-expanding suite of solutions that enable human-robot collaboration in a truly safe and effective manner. The MIT spinoff already counts the world’s largest machine tool manufacturer, DMG MORI, as a customer and has developed specialized solutions and products for a diverse array of industries, including construction, manufacturing, material handling, and transportation.  

“We’ve been developing technologies based on real-world needs since day one,” says Skylla co-founder Harry Asada. A longstanding member of the faculty at MIT, Asada is renowned for his contributions to the field of robotics. In addition to inventing direct-drive robots, which have been widely used for clean-room automation and assembly; he has made critical contributions to robot control; pioneered robotics research on grasping and fixturing; and developed a host of innovative devices for robotics and biomedical applications, including wearable robotic limbs for human augmentation. 

Through his lab at the Institute, Asada had been collaborating with one of Japan’s largest railway companies on a mobile robot research project for several years. At a certain point in the engagement, the company decided it wanted to accelerate development with the intention of demonstrating its new service robot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. As Asada tells it, this was his cue to close out the research side of things and assemble a founding team capable of translating his work in the lab to the real world. Or, more specifically, from his lab to a bustling railway station and beyond.  

Enter Asada’s fellow co-founders at Skylla: Dr. Sheng Liu, Kota Weaver, and David Hedin. Liu is a roboticist and serial entrepreneur who studied under Asada at MIT, Weaver is a software specialist, and Hedin lends his expertise in the hardware domain. Together they build robot platforms that are a cut above the rest.  

According to Liu, Skylla is now in the process of building partnerships with various equipment manufacturers and system integrators, and it has recently announced a partnership with Movensys, a Korean company that provides Windows-based robot motion control solutions for top tier customers like Samsung, SK Hynix, Foxconn, and Mitsubishi Electric. Movensys will integrate Skylla’s autonomous mobile robot technology into their product offerings to expand from fixed base to mobile robot control applications.

We leverage deep learning to predict human motion,” says Weaver, “which helps our robots to move in a way that people can understand and anticipate

Skylla’s linchpin product, the Jetstream Core, is a controller that serves as the brain for mobile robotic systems. It features a cutting-edge human-aware navigation system designed to work in crowded, dynamic environments, and it interfaces seamlessly with existing sensors and motor control systems, enabling fully automated robots while vastly reducing development costs. “We leverage deep learning to predict human motion,” says Weaver, “which helps our robots to move in a way that people can understand and anticipate. We also leverage external sensors placed in the environment to get a better understanding of the space we’re in.”  

Behind the Jetstream Core units is Skylla’s Jetstream Server, which allows the operator to orchestrate, coordinate, and monitor individual robots with a convenient web interface. It also allows data—including maps, points of interest, and operations—to be shared among a fleet of on-site robots. Meanwhile, privacy concerns are put to rest by a system that keeps all this data secure on premises. 

“At Skyla, we've seen a lot of factories where the mobile robots simply aren’t capable of handling these very dynamic environments,” says Weaver. He explains that most robots on the market have to stop frequently, unsure of the next right move on a busy factory floor, which slows down jobs and leads to unnecessary power consumption. On the other hand, robots powered by Skylla maximize efficiency by navigating obstacles seamlessly and ceaselessly. And while other mobile robots aren't typically designed with high accuracy in mind, Skylla boasts an impressive 0.3-millimeter positioning accuracy with a robot arm sitting on a moving platform—something its customers appreciate and its competitors can’t approach. 

As the young startup expands its global footprint, Liu says that he and his team intend to make the most of the connections made through the MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) and MIT Startup Exchange. “We’ve only been working with MIT ILP for a few months, and the relationship has already provided us with valuable connections to potential customers. Joining STEX25 further opens the door to high-quality interactions with ILP corporate members and the opportunity to be highlighted within the MIT startup ecosystem. It is extremely exciting for us,” says Liu. 

With a mature product capable of addressing various applications, the Skylla team anticipates a big year ahead. In terms of technology development, they’ll be further expanding their fleet management capabilities to include the coordination of thousands of vehicles. They also plan to open an office in Tokyo to better serve current customers while anticipating new opportunities in the East Asian market. And, in addition to considering more outdoor-indoor hybrid use cases, they have their sights set on breaking into new fields.

Big players are building new semiconductor plants around the world," notes Sheng Liu. "I think it’s great timing for us to enter into that space  

The semiconductor industry in particular, with its need for high accuracy and high throughput, seems like a logical target for Skylla. Considering the global chip shortage, which is spurring construction plans for a whole new crop of semiconductor plants, Skylla seems well positioned to have an impact with its innovation. “Big players are building new semiconductor plants around the world," notes Sheng Liu. "I think it’s great timing for us to enter into that space, and we strongly believe that we can offer game-changing solutions to support those productions.”