In a chilly, no-frills warehouse space just south of downtown Seattle, a small startup is at work, like many, on the next big thing. But there’s no fancy artwork on the walls or ping-pong table near the non-existent onsite cafe.
There’s Georgios Chrysanthakopoulos, the blunt-talking and hard-working founder and CEO of Directed Machines, formerly known as dCentralized Systems, and his four-person team. And there’s a new machine.
A burly, fat-tired, solar-powered Land Care Robot as it is called sits in a scrappy parking lot out back on a very wet November day. It’s not a robot that will sort or deliver packages or handle some other task consistent with other Seattle tech innovations. It’s a machine for small farms and rural properties, meant to replace its expensive, gas-powered predecessors.
“The irony is not lost on us, doing the first solar, heavy duty robot in SoDo in Seattle,” Chrysanthakopoulos said, standing between puddles and pointing out all the features on his creation.
Chrysanthakopoulos left big tech two years ago for the opportunity to start something on his own following 16 years at Microsoft where he was the highly regarded technical lead for that company’s robotics effort. He also did stints at Google, F5 Networks and the software company VMware.
More than a year ago, the Land Care Robot’s smaller cousin was a laser-armed robot designed to zap weeds. Chrysanthakopoulos set out with the goal of removing as much pollution and poisonous chemicals as he could from the equation of land management.
Now the machine is bigger and ultimately designed to pull — with ease and without emissions — a bunch of attachments and implements that farmers already own such as mowers, trimmers, spreaders, sprayers, rakes, blades and so on. But at around $12,500, the price tag has remained small, compared to sub compact or compact tractors, which range between $15,000 and $50,000. “Depending on the color,” Chrysanthakopoulos said, referencing industry leader John Deere. “If they’re green, you pay more.”
“It’s pretty much the only device that exists right now that can do heavy work and it’s solar charged,” he said of his robot. “That’s usually an oxymoron, right? If you’re solar charged purely, you don’t expect it to do 1,400 pounds of torque and 42 horsepower and do things like tilling or grading.”
In his bid to do away with the pollution that comes from agriculture and rural property work, Chrysanthakopoulos has not turned to lithium batteries the way “hipster” robots have, as he calls them. With its 400W bifacial solar panel, the Land Care Robot powers marine-grade lead-acid batteries that can pull 7,000 pounds for 40 hours without depletion.
Half shouting his enthusiasm above the sound of nearby train horns, Chrysanthakopoulos said his robot has twice the torque of a Tesla P100D.
“It fits in the back of a pickup truck, but it can pull your pickup truck up the hill!”
Chrysanthakopoulos is as proud of his hardware chops as he is of his software design. With a smartphone in his hand, he thumbs through a user interface to drive the robot around the parking lot. At times it maneuvers autonomously, stopping for hazards, pulling zero radius turns on its single axle and changing direction. The robot itself is a hotspot and can be in the middle of the forest with no internet access and still be functional.
It has a completely custom-built drive train that uses chains — because a farmer can fix a broken chain link — and three motor controllers that power left and right wheels and a power take-off (PTO) shaft that will drive a towed implement such as a mower.
Land Care Robot uses a topological navigator — there is no deep machine learning of a multi-million-image data set and no TensorFlow. It runs on a Raspberry Pi and boasts a number of components that help keep the cost low, including the $300 solar panel, front and rear cameras and a $10 GPS.
“This is a $10 GPS! I can’t stress that enough,” Chrysanthakopoulos said. “Go out there and find anyone that can use $100 worth of compute and sensors and build a robot like this. It just doesn’t exist. And this is, again, the stuff I did at Microsoft that didn’t see the light of day. It was my best work ever. Way ahead of its time.”
The enthusiasm continues inside in front of a computer monitor where Chrysanthakopoulos pulls up a satellite image of the United States and zooms way in to points in Washington and Oregon where working prototypes are already in the field helping land owners. He tracks their every move from his software, switching between squiggly lines of robot movements and the code that produced them.
“I wrote all the code. And when I say all the code I really mean all the code,” he said. “I didn’t just download six open-source projects and stitch them together.”
It’s emblematic of Chrysanthakopoulos’ desire to control his destiny and that of his company. He wants to stay small and move slowly, even if it means working seven days a week. He said a 20- to 30-percent profit margin would make it a viable business that doesn’t require a huge pile of cash from a VC.
He also wants to have a lot of fun and make a big impact.
“When I retired from VMware and I started building an autonomous machine, for once one I wanted to be able to explain to my kids what the heck it is that I’m building,” Chrysanthakopoulos said. “My kids see it and understand what it is — it’s a heavy duty machine that does work when you’re not there and removes a shit ton of emissions when it does that.
“And it helps a lot of people,” he said.