Robots have made great strides even in just the past five years. But despite major advances in basic technology such as sensing and computing, many robots that inhabit industries such as manufacturing are considered “special purpose”: they are designed to perform a limited number of tasks in stable and predictable environments. It is not uncommon to come across the opinion that general-purpose robotics (GPR), no matter what leaps they may have made, are. – One that can perform a range of tasks in an uncertain environment – It’s still just a distant dream.
based in Austin Optronic Differs. The company has already built a human upper-body robot called Astra, which it says is a GPR device that can perform tasks such as storage, packaging and other functions common in industrial settings. Now, Apptronik is preparing to commercialize another robot, which it also says is GPR, designed for heavy loads and more critical industries, including aviation, logistics and retail. Apptronik calls this second human being “Apollo,” and the company recently signed a new contract with NASA to bring it to market next year.
One might wonder why we don’t put AI in an excavator or some other type of robot – After all, we’re designing self-driving vehicles, rather than robots that are really good at driving cars. But optronic Co-founder and CEO Jeff Cardenas says there’s room for both. He added that humanoid robots are best suited to operate in environments designed for humans, and to use all of the same tools as humans.
“Traditional robots are really designed to do things that are highly repeatable in structured environments,” Cardenas said. “What we’ve really focused on is how do we build robots that can work in highly dynamic, changing environments? With robots, it’s really, how do we build a robot made by humans, for humans, to work in spaces designed for humans?”
He, CTO and co-founder Nick Payne likened GPRs to smartphones, which have a range of functions. In this case, Apollo is the hardware and software platform that can perform different tasks or create different applications. Its final effects will be interchangeable, so it can have human hands, but also grippers, pirates, or other manipulators. And it will be able to move at roughly the same speed as a human, Optronic says.
“We’re building a platform,” Ben explained. “You don’t need M/L frameworks to build iPhone apps, you need a scalable hardware platform that can perform a wide range of tasks.”
While it’s still early days, Cardenas said, we’re moving from an old world populated entirely with special-purpose robots to a new world of GPRs: robots that can even learn, imitate and improve on their tasks the longer they perform, capabilities that Apptronik says it plans to implement over time. The level of abstraction will also increase; Initially, the Apollo will be controlled through a user interface on a smartphone or computer, and the customer will have to be very specific about what you want Apollo to do. But the ultimate goal is to be able to give Apollo high-level tasks that it can know how to accomplish on its own.
While there is still a place for special-purpose robots, Cardenas said we’re entering a new phase of robotics that science fiction has promised.
GPRs for Earth and beyond
The company’s relationship with NASA stretches back to 2013, when the team participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge and was selected to work on a robot called the Valkyrie. At that point, Apptronik was still part of the human-centered robotics lab at the University of Texas at Austin (sprung from the lab in 2016). This team included Ben and Luis Saintes, who also founded the company and now works as a science consultant.
“You can really think of Apptronik as marketing all the work that’s been done at NASA, with DARPA,” Cardenas said.
Apollo is an auspicious name for a robot supported by NASA. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the twin brother of Artemis. Artemis is the name that NASA chose for its ultra-ambitious, multi-year plan to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon. As the partnership with NASA indicates, the company is considering how to take advantage of human GPRs in space – On the moon or even Mars. Plus, Cardenas said, having robots that can walk and adapt to the same internal footprint as humans could be very useful for a settlement on Mars.
Before Apollo ever sees space, Apptronik is looking to terrestrial applications, hoping to sell the robot to companies across major industries. The company, which raised $14.6 million in seed funding earlier this summer in part to fund these marketing efforts, hopes to showcase the robot at South by Southwest next year.
The company has about 62 full-time employees, and they have been hired since the end of its initial round. It’s still muted for now on pricing for the Apollo robot, but Cardenas said so by iterating on dozens of unique engines. – One of the most expensive parts of the system – They managed to make it accessible to everyone. The ultimate goal is to have 1 million robots available by 2030.
“A lot of people are skeptical about this technology,” Cardenas said. “[They say,] ‘is this real? Is she here?’ What we believe is, by partnering with NASA, which is this storied group known for real technology that really pushes things forward, this is really showing an inflection point in robotics. Now is the time, and we are in this new era of robotics where we can now build new types of systems that so many people have been waiting for so long.”
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