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Humanoid Robots: Striding Towards Working in Industry and Healthcare

Humanoid Robots: Striding Towards Working in Industry and Healthcare
DirectIndustry looks at some of the humanoid robots currently taking steps forward. (Credit: Figure)

The notion of letting humanoid robots take the strain by stepping into jobs previously held by humans is nothing new but it seems we are now steps closer to making this a reality. DirectIndustry looks at 5 humanoid robots currently taking steps forward.

In recent months, both Amazon and BMW have announced they are testing humanoid robots within workplace settings with the ultimate aim of integrating them into their processes. The idea is for the robots to take on repetitive or unsafe tasks, as well as to enhance efficiency, in situations where the human mind and skills may not be necessary.

A Sudden Excitement

Dr. Lorenzo Jamone, Senior Lecturer in Robotics at Queen Mary University of London, has watched the developments with interest and is hopeful that we may one day see humanoid robots within a range of fields. 

“Until recently humanoid robots have not been considered to be precise or effective enough to work in industry. But there has been a steady improvement in the technologies of robotics in general and in terms of investment. There is currently a lot of hype – not necessarily in a negative way – about the advancements in AI and we are now seeing bigger companies, like Tesla, going into the market of humanoids. Suddenly there is now more excitement and it seems that more and more things are possible – and that pushes everything along.”

He explains that humanoid robots appeal to people because their human-like shape allows for integration into workplaces designed for humans.

“If they are accurate and precise enough then clearly they will bring huge benefits because they can automate a situation without having to change the environment much.”


Locomotion, the Main Challenge

The complexity of the humanoid robot has been its main challenge, Dr. Jamone suggests. But improvements in locomotion, computer vision, manipulation, control, and perception technologies have all contributed to faster development.

“Locomotion is one of the main challenges with a humanoid robot because you have to be able to ensure it can stand and locomote without falling over, which is much more complex than with a robot that doesn’t move at all or that has wheels. If used in industry or healthcare, the humanoid robot also needs to be able to manipulate objects – pick things up and move them around – and it has to be able to do this while keeping its balance.”

The biggest challenges now to integrating humanoid robots into industrial and healthcare environments are ensuring that they attain high enough levels of safety and reliability, he says.

The Problem of Cost

“Cost is another issue – a humanoid robot might pay off in situations such as within the aerospace industry for the construction of airplanes, for example. This is an industry where lots of tasks are still manual and carried out by humans because it has not been easy to automate them with standard, robotic manipulators. But humanoid robots may be a viable solution in an industry like aerospace where budgets are higher.”

He suggests that costs could decrease if the production of humanoid robots is scaled up in the future.

“I think it is possible that eventually they could be used almost anywhere. We are starting to see rovers (robots with wheels and arms that can pick produce on some larger farms but these cannot cope with more complex terrains, such as coffee plantations on hills, whereas a humanoid robot – or quadruped with arms – could be a solution.”

And the situation is the same in healthcare, he observes:

“In social healthcare, we are already seeing service robots that interact with patients. These aren’t full humanoid robots; they are mobile devices with human faces, but perhaps there could be a role in the future for humanoid robots within these settings.”

DirectIndustry looks at some of the humanoid robots currently taking steps forward:

1/ Figure 01 by Figure

California-based robotics firm Figure has teamed up with BMW to test its humanoid Figure01 robot at the car manufacturer’s Spartanburg plant in the US. The autonomous robot combines human dexterity with cutting-edge AI and is suitable for employment in manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, and retail.

If the trials succeed, they hope to seamlessly integrate humanoid robots into BMW’s production lines eventually.

Brett Adcock, Founder and CEO of Figure, says in a press release:

“Single-purpose robotics have saturated the commercial market for decades, but the potential of general-purpose robotics is completely untapped. Figure’s robots will enable companies to increase productivity, reduce costs, and create a safer and more consistent environment.”

Last week, the company announced that it has secured $675M (€624M) at a $2.6B valuation. The investment comes from an array of tech giants, including Microsoft OpenAI, NVIDIA, Parkway Venture Capital, Intel Capital, Align Ventures, and Jeff Bezos.

Figure 01 is making coffee (Credit: Figure)
Figure’s head
Its waist
Its hand with digits (Credit: Figure)

2/ Digit by Agility Robotics

Amazon is currently working with US-based Agility Robotics, testing its bipedal robot, Digit, for use in its operations. Jonathan Hurst, Chief Robot Officer, says Agility Robotics’ mission is to build robot partners that augment the human workforce.

“Digit is the first human-centric, multi-purpose robot made for logistics work. It can move, grasp, and handle items in spaces and corners of a warehouse in novel ways. Initial applications include bulk material handling – such as totes and cases – within warehouses and distribution centers. While there may be implementations in medical settings in the future, in the near term Digit is designed to work in industries with large logistic and warehouse operations, such as third-party logistics, automotive manufacturers, and e-commerce providers.”

The humanoid robot is 1.7m tall, weighs about 63.5 kg, and can lift almost 16 kg; it can easily be adapted to various warehouse tasks through software updates. 

“Digit is designed from the ground up to go where people go and do useful work, safely, in spaces designed for people. Because so many tasks are designed around human workflows, Digit’s human-centric design enables multi-purpose utility.”

Agility’s advances in understanding human and animal locomotion, combined with pioneering machine learning for dynamic control, has led to it deploying Digit in commercial settings for the first time, he explains.  

“Initially, Digit will be deployed as a solution to move totes within a warehouse. Tote handling is a boring, repetitive task that is best done by a robot so that the human workers at these facilities can be handling more interesting and complex tasks.”

Amazon is currently working with US-based Agility Robotics, testing its bipedal robot, Digit, for use in its operations. (Credit: Agility Robotics)
The humanoid robot is 1.7m tall. (Agility Robotics)
It weighs about 63.5 kg, and can lift almost 16 kg (Agility)

3/ Mirokaï, by Enchanted Tools

France-based Enchanted Tools has the ambition of producing some 100,000 humanoid robots within 10 years. They designed the Mirokaï robot to operate within healthcare settings, where it will interact with patients and medical staff.

According to the company’s CCO, Richard Malterre,

“Mirokaï are logistics robots designed for social environments: assistants that move objects and are designed to be in contact with end-users. They are prototypes, characterized by radical approaches: anime-inspired design, standardized handles, and a rolling globe that allows free mobility.”

In hospitals, for instance, they will be able to carry equipment, letting nurses provide enhanced care to patients.

“They will enable a wide range of professionals to get help in managing certain demanding and repetitive tasks, freeing up their time to do what humans do best: interact with other humans.”

Mirokaï at Viva Tech in Paris last June (Credit: Enchanted Tools).
Mirokaï robot can work within healthcare settings where it will interact with patients and medical staff. (Credit: Enchanted Tools).

4/ Apollo, by Apptronik

US-based Apptronik designed Apollo to transform the industrial workforce, drawing on its experience in building 10 previous robots, including NASA’s humanoid robot, Valkyrie. The aim is for it to operate in warehouses and manufacturing plants.

Its creators envisage it working alongside humans in construction, oil and gas, electronics production, as well as care for the elderly.

Human in size and weight, Apollo has digital panels on its face and chest to foster easy communication with co-workers.

Apollo by Apptronik aims to transform the industrial workforce. (Credit: Apptronik)

5/ ARMAR-6 by KIT

AMAR-6, from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, is also a collaborative humanoid assistant robot suitable for industrial environments

It can handle tools like power drills and hammers, and its AI capabilities allow it to perform maintenance tasks autonomously.

AMAR-6 features four computers in its mobile base for control, image processing, and interaction algorithms, as well as for machine learning and AI.

AMAR-6, from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, is also a collaborative humanoid assistant robot suitable for industrial environments. (Credit: KIT)

Facing Labor Shortage

But there are also critical labor shortages in many industries where robots can step in and make an immediate impact. In a previous report, we investigated how collaborative robots can undertake dirty and dangerous work like welding amid shortages of skilled labor.

Jonathan Hurst, Chief Robot Officer at Agility Robotics said:

“I expect humanoid robots can play a very similar role in many industries in the coming years.”