years ago The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency held a painful competition involving robots that slowly struggled (and often failed) to perform a variety of human tasks, including opening doors, operating power tools, and driving golf carts. Videos of them stumbling and tripping their way through the Darpa Robotics Challenge soon went viral.
Today, the descendants of those happy robots are much more capable and elegant. Several startups are developing humanoids that they say could find work in warehouses and factories in just a few years.
Jerry Pratt, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Florida, led the team that placed second in the Darpa challenge in 2015. He is now the co-founder of Figure AI, a humanoid robot for warehouse operations, which today announced $70 million in investment funding.
Pratt says that if Darpa’s challenge were carried out today, the robots would be able to 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 perspective, there have been a lot of enabling technologies emerging lately,” he says.
More advanced computer vision, made possible by advances in machine learning over the past decade, has made it much easier for cars to navigate complex environments and perform tasks such as climbing stairs and grasping objects. The denser power batteries produced by the development of electric cars have also made it possible to put enough juice into the humanoid robot so that it can move its legs quickly for dynamic balance, that is, to stabilize itself when it slides or stumbles. misjudges a move as humans can.
Pratt says his company’s robot is taking its first steps around a mock-up warehouse in Sunnyvale, California. Figure CEO Brett Adcock believes it should be possible to build humanoids for the same price as building a car, provided there is enough demand to ramp up production.
If Adcock is right about that, then the field of robotics is approaching a crucial moment. You’re probably familiar with the dancing Atlas humanoid robots that have been racking up YouTube likes for several years. They were made by Boston Dynamics, the pedometer pioneer that created some of the humanoids used in the Darpa competition, and show that it is possible to make capable robots in human form. But these robots have been prohibitively expensive—the original Atlas cost several million dollars—and lacked the software needed to make them autonomous and useful.
Figure isn’t the only company betting that humanoid robots are coming of age. Others include 1X, Apptronik and Tesla. Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited the original Darpa Robotics Challenge in 2015. The fact that he is now looking to create a humanoid suggests that some of the technology needed to create such a machine is finally viable.
Jonathan Hurst, a professor at Oregon State University and co-founder of Agility Robotics, also participated in the Darpa challenge to present a demonstration of a walking robot he created. Agility has been working on legged robots for a while, but Hurst says the company has taken a physics-first approach to locomotion instead of copying the mechanics of human limbs. Although his robots are humanoid, they have legs that appear to be inspired by an ostrich.