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 number of human tasks, including opening doors, operating power tools, and driving golf carts. Clips of them tripping and stumbling through the Darpa Robotics Challenge it soon went viral.

DARPA via Will Knight

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

jerry prattA senior research scientist at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a nonprofit research institute in Florida, he led a team that came second in the Darpa challenge in 2015. He is now a co-founder of AI figurea company building a humanoid robot designed for warehouse work that today announced a $70 million investment.

Pratt says that if the Darpa challenge were run today, the robots could 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 come out recently,” he says.

More advanced computer vision, made possible by developments in machine learning over the past decade, has made it much easier for machines to navigate complex environments and perform tasks like climbing stairs and grabbing objects. More energy-dense batteries, produced as a result of the development of electric vehicles, have also made it possible for a humanoid robot to have enough energy to move its legs fast enough to dynamically balance, that is, to stabilize itself when it slips or slides. misjudges a step, as humans can.

Pratt says his company’s robot is taking its first steps in a simulated warehouse in Sunnyvale, California. Brett Adcock, CEO of Figure, believes that it should be possible to build humanoids at the same cost as building a car, provided there is enough demand to increase production.

If Adcock is right about that, then the field of robotics is approaching a turning point. You are probably familiar with the humanoid robots atlas dancing who have been racking up likes on YouTube for several years. They are made by Boston Dynamics, a pioneer of legged locomotion that built some of the humanoids used in the Darpa contest, and show that it is possible to make capable robots in the shape of a human. But these robots have been extremely expensive (the original Atlas cost several million dollars) and lacked the necessary software to make them autonomous and useful.

Robot Apptronik Astra.Courtesy of Apptronik

Figure isn’t the only company betting that humanoid robots are coming of age. others include 1X, apptronikand Tesla. Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited the original Darpa Robotics Challenge in 2015. The fact that he is now interested in building a humanoid suggests that some of the technologies needed to make such a machine are finally viable.

jonathan hurstprofessor at Oregon State University and co-founder of agility robotics, was also at the Darpa challenge to give a demonstration of a walking robot that he built. Agility has been working on legged robots for a while, but Hurst says the company has taken a physics-first approach to locomotion rather than copying the mechanics of human limbs. Although his robots are humanoid, they have legs that look like they were inspired by an ostrich.


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