Humanoid Robots Are Coming of Age

Eight years ago, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency organized a painful-to-watch contest that involved robots slowly struggling (and often failing) to perform a series of human tasks, including opening doors, operating power tools, and driving golf carts. Clips of them fumbling and stumbling through the Darpa Robotics Challenge soon went viral.

DARPA via Will Knight

Today the descendants of those hapless robots are a lot more capable and graceful. Several startups are developing humanoids that they claim could, in just a few years, find employment in warehouses and factories. 

Jerry Pratt, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a nonprofit research institute in Florida, led a team that came second in the Darpa challenge back in 2015. He is now a cofounder of Figure AI, a company building a humanoid robot designed for warehouse work that today announced $70 million in investment funding.

Pratt says that if Darpa’s challenge were run today, robots would be able to complete the challenges in about a quarter of the 50 minutes it took his robot to complete the course, with few accidents. “From a technical point of view, a lot of enabling technologies have popped up recently,” he says.

More advanced computer vision, made possible through developments in machine learning over the past decade, has made it a lot easier for machines to navigate complex environments and do tasks like climbing stairs and grasping objects. More power-dense batteries, produced as a result of electric vehicle development, have also made it possible to pack sufficient juice into a humanoid robot for it to move its legs quickly enough to balance dynamically—that is, to steady itself when it slips or misjudges a step, as humans can.

At a manufacturing industry event called ProMat this March, Agility’s robots wowed the crowds with demonstrations of warehouse tasks such as picking totes from shelves and placing them onto conveyors fully autonomously. 

There are, of course, already plenty of warehouse and manufacturing robots out there that use wheels rather than legs. And warehouses can be designed to make clever use of more conventional automation like conveyor belts.

Agility Robot demo at ProMat 2023.Courtesy of Agility Robotics

But Melonee Wise, Agility’s CTO, says there are many situations where legs are far superior, especially at companies that cannot afford to entirely remake their operations around automation. Humanoid robots can more easily navigate stairs, ramps, and unsteady ground; squeeze into tight spaces; and bend down or reach up as they work, Wise says. She’s a recent convert to team humanoid, and was until recently CEO of Fetch Robotics, which makes wheeled warehouse robots.

“The market is ready,” Wise says, adding that the main challenge ahead will be increasing reliability: “The secret to success in robotics is failing gracefully.” They might not have been graceful, but the clumsy robots of the Darpa challenge were well ahead of their time.

Source : Wired