By Nick Carey
LONDON (Reuters) - Self-driving technology startup Robotic Research said on Thursday it has raised $228 million from investors including SoftBank to scale up its commercial division's solutions for trucks, buses and logistics vehicles.
The fundraising round also included an investment from Luminar Technologies, which makes lidar sensors used in self-driving cars.
Robotic Research has been working on a variety of military applications for the U.S. Department of Defense for 20 years, including self-driving road clearing vehicles used in Afghanistan, and an autonomous shuttle for wounded soldiers at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
The company also runs "platooning" cargo services - where driverless trucks follow a lead truck at a set distance on highways - for the U.S. Army.
Robotic Research Chief Executive Alberto Lacaze told Reuters prices of sensors had made commercial applications for self-driving unaffordable for years, but that had now changed and the company's RR.AI commercial unit was now capitalising on it.
"That's one of the reasons we have sought investment now is because the prices of the sensors and the hardware have changed to where they are usable on the commercial side," Lacaze said. "We are already scaling up and this allows us to do it faster."
While much of the early focus on autonomous vehicles was on robotaxis, more investment is flowing to less-complicated uses in logistics that can generate revenue much sooner.
Lacaze said his company's work for the military has involved operating in "edge case" areas that are dusty, where there is no GPS, no road markings or any well-defined roads at all - experience that other autonomous technology companies lack.
"We feel very confident moving to the commercial side where most of our competitors have been working in very prescribed areas," he said.
In the next year, RR.AI will deploy autonomous vehicles for Canada's logging industry and a number of agricultural vehicles. The company is also working on pilot projects using "yard dogs", or trucks used in distribution yards.
RR.AI is also deploying partially autonomous systems on buses in Kansas City, Missouri with U.S. bus manufacturer GILLIG and in Connecticut with Canadian NFI Group Inc's New Flyer Industries bus division.
When asked about a possible listing, Lacaze said Robotic Research may go public at some point but that was not currently a priority.
"Right now we're more interested in expanding and delivering savings for our customers," he said.
(Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by David Clarke)