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Drone inspecting wind turbines
A drone inspects turbines at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s wind farm in California’s Solano County. (SMUD via YouTube)

Small drones, big data and computer vision: That’s the tech-frontier trifecta for Clobotics, a Shanghai startup that says it’s raised $5 million in seed funding and opened a research and development center in the Seattle area.

George Yan
Former Microsoft executive George Yan is Clobotics’ co-founder and CEO. (George Yan via LinkedIn)

“This is where I took the plunge,” Clobotics co-founder George Yan, a former executive at Microsoft China and the Chinese drone venture Ehang, told GeekWire.

Yan said Clobotics (“cloud” plus “robotics”) has been more than a decade in the making. The venture aims to capitalize on the capabilities of aerial robotics and artificial intelligence to automate the task of evaluating the condition of hard-to-reach infrastructure.

GGV Capital, a U.S.-Chinese venture capital firm, is leading a $5 million financing round to get Clobotics off the ground, Yan said.

The startup already has 35 employees, including five at the R&D operation in Redmond, Wash. “We think we will double that size in the next 12 months,” Yan said.

Clobotics’ first target will be wind turbines. The wind energy market has taken off dramatically in China over the past five years. In the past year alone, Chinese utilities installed 23 gigawatts’ worth of wind power, leading the world, according to the Global Wind Report. (The report says the U.S. was No. 2 with 8.2 gigawatts installed in 2016.)

Yan said the timing is right to market services that ensure all those thousands of turbines, including offshore facilities, are kept well-maintained.

“This is a $50 billion market and growing, and obviously China is No. 1,” Yan said.

He said Clobotics aims to offer a full-service solution for infrastructure inspection, including custom-modified, sensor-equipped drones to check the turbines; computer vision to record their condition; and software that compares the images and spots maintenance issues without having to tax human eyeballs.

“It’s not really the drone that’s totally interesting, it’s actually the data,” he said.

The approach, known as “drone data as a service” or DDaaS, can be extended to other sectors as well, ranging from railroad lines and power lines, to bridges and highways, to cellular towers and retail inventory.

“If I can detect a crack on a wind turbine, I can detect a crack on a bridge,” Yan explained. “I can detect a crack on a tall building.”

Clobotics is one of 16 startups taking part in the latest round of the Microsoft Accelerator program in Beijing, and GGV’s investment moves the venture closer to the head of the class. “We’re very appreciative of their support,” Yan said.

Jenny Lee, managing partner of GGV Capital and a Clobotics board member, said the venture hits a sweet spot for her firm’s interests in transportation, robotics and AI productization. “Clobotics is an interesting convergence of the three areas,” she said.

She said it’s not all that unusual for Chinese companies to have R&D centers in the U.S. In this case, the Seattle area made sense as the locale – rather than, say, the San Francisco Bay Area or Pittsburgh – and not just because Yan spent 15 years at Redmond-based Microsoft.

“Seattle is No. 2 or No. 3 [for R&D] because there’s Amazon, there’s Microsoft,” Lee told GeekWire in a phone call from California. “The talent pool there is actually more stable. It’s harder to get them to move down to the Bay Area.”

Yan agreed with that assessment: “Seattle is a much calmer place, where engineers tend to stay in one place longer,” he said.

But if Clobotics succeeds the way its backers hope it will, the company won’t be focused exclusively on Seattle and Shanghai for long. Lee expects to see a big market for companies that leverage drone data intelligently and efficiently.

“It’s not just in the U.S. or China,” she said. “It’s global. This can be scaled to global easily.”

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