A Competition involving robots painstakingly attempting (and frequently failing) to carry out a variety of human jobs, such as opening doors, using power tools, and driving golf carts, was staged by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency eight years ago. Videos of them struggling through the Darpa Robotics Challenge quickly became popular online.

The progeny of those helpless robots are far more skillful and elegant now. A number of firms are creating humanoids that they say might work in factories and warehouses in a few years.

A team that finished second in the Darpa challenge in 2015 was led by Jerry Pratt, a senior research scientist at the nonprofit Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Florida. He is currently the company’s chief technical officer. Figure AI is developing a humanoid robot for warehouse operations and has received $70 million in venture funds.

According to Pratt, robots might finish Darpa’s challenge today with fewer accidents and in about a fourth the time it took his robot to complete the course. He claims that many enabling technologies have lately surfaced from a technological perspective.

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Through improvements in machine learning over the past ten years, more sophisticated computer vision has made it much simpler for computers to navigate challenging settings and perform tasks like ascending stairs and grasping items. It is now conceivable to fit enough power into a humanoid robot such that it can move its legs swiftly enough to balance dynamically—that is, to steady itself when it slips or misjudges a step, as humans can—as a result of the development of more power-dense batteries for electric vehicles.

According to Pratt, a robot created by his company is exploring a Sunnyvale, California, mock-up warehouse for the first time. If there is enough demand to speed up manufacturing, Figure’s CEO Brett Adcock believes it should be possible to produce humanoids for the same price as making a car.

If Adcock is correct, then the robots industry is headed for a turning point. The dancing Atlas humanoid robots have been amassing YouTube likes for years, so you’re undoubtedly already familiar with them. They were created by Boston Dynamics, a leader in legged locomotion who created some of the humanoids used in the Darpa competition, and they demonstrate that it is feasible to create powerful robots that resemble humans. The first Atlas cost several million dollars, but these robots have been very pricey and have lacked the software necessary to make them independent and useful.

Figure is not the only business banking on the development of humanoid robots. Tesla, 1X, and Apptronik are a few others. Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited the first Darpa Robotics Challenge in 2015. He now wants to construct a humanoid himself, which means that some of the necessary technologies are already ready for use.

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The Darpa challenge featured a demonstration of a walking robot created by Jonathan Hurst, an Oregon State University professor and creator of Agility Robotics. For some time now, Agility has been developing legged robots, but according to Hurst, the business has chosen to approach locomotion from a physics-first perspective rather than by mimicking the mechanics of human limbs. Its robots are humanoid, yet they have legs that resemble those of an ostrich, maybe as a result.

Agility’s robots dazzled the crowds with demonstrations of warehouse activities like taking totes from shelves and placing them onto conveyors totally autonomously at a manufacturing industry convention called ProMat this March.

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Of course, there are already a lot of manufacturing and warehousing robots that move on wheels rather than legs. Additionally, warehouses can be built to smartly utilize more traditional automation, such conveyor belts.

However, Legs are significantly preferable in many circumstances, especially at businesses that cannot afford to completely restructure their operations around automation, according to Melonee Wise, CTO of Agility. According to Wise, humanoid robots are better able to maneuver through narrow areas, climb stairs, ramps, and uneven terrain. They can even bend over or reach up while working. She just switched to team humanoid, having previously served as CEO of the company that develops wheeled warehouse robots, Fetch Robotics.

The market is prepared, according to Wise, who also notes that boosting reliability will be the key difficulty moving forward: “The secret to success in robotics is failing gracefully.” The ungainly robots from the Darpa challenge may not have been graceful, but they were well ahead of their time.


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