Mar 14, 2024 - Technology

Coming soon: A programmable army of humanoid robots

Two humanoid robots move yellow bins in a warehouse.

Agility's robots are on trial assignment at an Amazon warehouse south of Seattle. Photo courtesy of Agility Robotics

Envisioning a day when hundreds of humanoid robots can be summoned and deployed at the touch of a button, Agility Robotics has announced its first fleet management platform.

Why it matters: There's intense competition among humanoid robot manufacturers to get their products into the industrial marketplace, where companies like Amazon and BMW are eager for their help.

Driving the news: The new platform, Agility Arc, is a cloud-based tool that'll be able to command a robot army, say, to start moving bins to a conveyor belt at a particular time.

What they're saying: "The ability to control fleets of robots is something that everybody in the robotics business needs to do," Damion Shelton, president of Agility Robotics, tells Axios.

  • "I think we're the first humanoid robot vendor to have any solution offering on that front."
  • Agility "envisions ultimately very large deployments, into the hundreds," Shelton adds.

Where it stands: Walking, dexterous robots are gradually making the leap from the science lab to the workplace, requiring more sophisticated management systems.

  • Agility's robot, named Digit, is being tested by Amazon and GXO Logistics, which recently deployed it at a Spanx warehouse in Georgia.
  • A competing robot maker called Figure, which just garnered a massive investment from Jeff Bezos and OpenAI, is starting to staff a BMW production line β€” and said just yesterday that its robot can "now have full conversations with people on end-to-end neural networks."
  • Agility is opening a manufacturing facility in Oregon called RoboFab, with plans to eventually produce 10,000 two-legged robots annually.
A humanoid robot grasps an empty rectangular bin.
Digit, the robot from Agility Robotics, has new "hands" capable of grasping bins. Photo courtesy of Agility

The latest: Agility just hired a new CEO, Peggy Johnson, formerly of the augmented reality headset maker Magic Leap, to land new customers.

  • She's touting Digit's expanding skillset and specs β€” it's 5'9," 140 pounds and can lift 35 pounds from the floor to nearly 6 feet.
  • The company is planning a "robots as a service" model, in which it'll charge customers a monthly fee for their Digit fleet.
A human warehouse worker toils alongside a robot one.
At an Amazon test facility, a human warehouse worker toils alongside a robot. Photo courtesy of Agility Robotics

Catch up quick: In its earliest incarnations, Digit was controlled by "a single engineer with a laptop, telling the robot to do something," Shelton says.

  • Last year the system was upgraded so that multiple robots could be controlled at the same time to work together on a single task.

"Now what we have is a whole integrated fleet management system that allows you to coordinate multiple robots out of a single user interface," Shelton says.

  • "That's a big step towards the larger customer deployments, where you would have multiple robots operating within a customer environment and want to track the charge level, the success or failure rate of the robot, and statistics like how much load they've been carrying."

πŸ€– Zoom in: Shelton gave the example of a warehouse that has an inbound tractor-trailer arriving at 3 p.m. with inventory that needs to be processed.

  • "So you need all the robots charged up and ready to go by 3 p.m," he says, "but you also have this body of work that needs to get done from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m."
  • With Agility Arc, "you can dynamically load-balance the fleet," Shelton says β€” ensuring there's constantly enough robots to get the day's work done.

Zoom out: Advances in humanoid robots are coming thick and fast.

  • Agility has been experimenting with integrating large language models and generative AI into Digit, so you can assign it tasks in natural language.
  • See a video of Digit being told verbally to "pick the box that's the color of Darth Vader's lightsaber and put it on top of the tallest box in the front row."
  • The H1 robot from a Chinese company called Unitree recently set the full-size humanoid robot speed record, moving at a top speed of 7.3 mph compared with the old record of 5.5 mph, per IOT World Today.

Yes, but: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other federal agencies are still working out how to set safety rules governing the new metallic workers.

The bottom line: The humanoid robot revolution is upon us β€” expect these droids to start moving into industrial settings over the next few years, and then retail stores and our homes.

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