Robotics has made great strides even in the last five years. But despite major advances in core technologies such as sensing and computing, many robots that populate industries like 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 encounter the view that, regardless of advances in robotics, a general purpose robot (GPR) — one who can perform a range of tasks in an uncertain environment — is still only a chimera.
Austin-based Apptronik disagrees. The company has already designed an upper-body humanoid robot called Astra, which it says is a GPR capable of performing tasks such as storage, packaging and other functions common in industrial settings. Now Apptronik is gearing up to bring another robot to market, which it says is also a GPR, designed for heavier payloads and more critical industries including aerospace, logistics and retail. Apptronik calls this second humanoid “Apollo,” and the company recently landed a new contract with NASA to bring it to market next year.
One might wonder why we don’t just put an AI in an excavator or any other kind of robot — after all, we’re designing autonomous vehicles, rather than robots that are really, really good at driving cars. But Apptronik co-founder and CEO Jeff Cardenas says there’s room for both. He added that human-shaped robots are best suited to operate in environments designed for humans and to use all of the same tools that humans use.
“Traditional robots are really designed to do highly repeatable things in structured environments,” Cardenas said. “What we really focused on was how to build robots that can operate in highly variable dynamic environments? With the humanoid robot, it’s really, how can we build a robot that’s made by humans, for humans, to work in spaces that were designed for humans? »
He and CTO and co-founder Nick Paine compared GPRs to smartphones, which have a range of features. In this case, Apollo is the hardware and software platform that can perform different tasks or create different applications. Its end effectors will be interchangeable, so it may have humanoid hands, but also claws, grippers, or other manipulators. And it will be able to move at about the same speed as a human, Apptronik says.
“We’re building a platform,” Paine 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.”
Cardenas said that although it is still in its infancy, we are moving from an old world populated entirely by special-purpose robots to a new world of GPRs: robots that can even learn, imitate and s improve in their tasks as they perform them, capabilities Apptronik says he plans to roll out over time. The level of abstraction will also increase; initially, Apollo will be controlled via a user interface on a smartphone or computer, and the customer will need to be pretty specific about what they want Apollo to do. But the end goal is to be able to give Apollo high-level tasks that he can figure out how to accomplish on his own.
While there’s still a place for special-purpose robots, Cardenas said we’re coming to a new stage in science-fiction-promised robotics.
GPR for Earth and beyond
The company’s relationship with NASA dates back to 2013, when the team participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge and was selected to work on a robot called Valkyrie. At that time, Apptronik was still part of the Human-Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Texas at Austin (it left the lab in 2016). This team included Paine and Luis Sentis, who also founded the company and now acts as scientific advisor.
“You can really think of Apptronik as the commercialization of all the work that’s been done at NASA, with DARPA,” Cardenas said.
Apollo is an auspicious name for a NASA-backed robot. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the twin brother of Artemis; and Artemis is the name NASA has chosen 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 GPRs could benefit humans in space — on the moon, or even on Mars. Plus, Cardenas said, having robots that can walk around and fit into the same interior footprint as a human could be very handy for a colony on Mars.
Before Apollo ever sees space, Apptronik is considering terrestrial applications, hoping to sell the robot to companies in major industries. The company, which raised $14.6 million in seed funding earlier this summer in part to fund that marketing effort, hopes to showcase the robot at South by Southwest next year.
The company has approximately 62 full-time employees and has been hiring since the end of its funding round. He remains silent for now on the price of an Apollo robot, but Cardenas said that by iterating on dozens of unique actuators — one of the most expensive parts of the system — they managed to make them more affordable. The ultimate goal is to deliver one million robots by 2030.
“A lot of people are skeptical about this technology,” Cardenas said. “[They say,] ‘Is it real? It’s here?’ What we think is that by partnering with NASA, which is this legendary group known for their real technology and really pushing things forward, it really shows an inflection point in robotics. The time has come, and we are at this new stage in robotics where we can now build new types of systems that many people have been waiting for for a long time.