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Ten Companies Leading the Upcoming Humanoid Robot Wave
Commercial humanoid robots are coming and here are 10 companies working on bringing them to work alongside humans
For a long time, humanoid robots existed only in the world of science fiction. But thanks to advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, humanoid robots can not only walk but also dance and do parkour, and will soon work alongside humans. Some of them might even arrive next year.
The environments we work and live in are designed, well, for us, humans. We live in complex environments full of objects designed to be manipulated with our hands and navigated on foot.
Introducing a robot into such an environment can be challenging. If you want to introduce an industrial robotic arm to your workflow that is currently optimized for human workers, there is a big chance you will need to redesign the workflow around the new robot. In some environments, like factories or warehouses, redesigning the workflow around robots makes sense. However, there are some environments, like hospitals, offices or even our homes, where this kind of redesign is not feasible.
That would not be the case with a sufficiently capable humanoid robot. Such a robot can be dropped into any environment designed for humans and start operating in it without any changes in the environment or in the workflow. And unlike industrial robots, humanoid robots are being designed to share space with human workers and work together with them.
That sounds straightforward but it is not an easy task.
Humanoid robots need to be dexterous enough to operate in human environments. They need to be able to open doors, climb stairs, pick up objects, and use tools designed for human hands. They need to have good power sources and be energy-efficient to work for at least 4 hours on one charge. They need to be quiet to not drive human co-workers mad and smart enough to work effectively with them. These robots also need to be designed to be safe around humans. They need to be aware of their surroundings at all times and be able to predict what a human co-worker will do and what humans expect them to do. Add all those and many more challenges, and you get probably the most complex robots ever built.
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One might ask then, why even bother with humanoid robots? Would it be easier to just hire a human?
The economic trends and the ageing population in developed countries, coupled with ongoing labour shortages, suggest that there might be fewer and fewer people willing or even able to work. This will accelerate the development and deployment of robots. The robotics industry is already projected to grow significantly. According to BCG, the global robotics market is expected to reach between $160 billion and $260 billion by 2030, up from about $25 billion in 2021. There is a growing demand for more automation, and humanoid robots might find a niche for themselves. As mentioned earlier, these robots have the unique advantage of being able to be deployed into any human environment without making any changes to that environment. They can pick up tools designed for human hands and start using them straight away. From an employer's point of view, a sufficiently capable humanoid robot would not be that different from a human worker. If done correctly, this could open a massive market for humanoid robots automating previously hard-to-automate processes.
But there is one big unknown - no one knows how humanoid robots will perform in an actual messy human environment working with actual human workers. To my knowledge, no one has deployed a sizable fleet of such robots and tested if they work as expected and how humans react to them. How well will humans and humanoid robots be able to communicate with each other? Will those robots be accepted by humans? Or will they be a source of tension, unpredictability or anxiety?
At the moment, most of the companies working on humanoid robots are either still in the research and development phase or at the very beginning of offering commercial robots. Nevertheless, there are companies that believe they can fulfil the dream of creating machines built in our image. Here are ten such companies.
Boston Dynamics Atlas
Boston Dynamics is probably the most well-known robotics company in the world. The videos showing what their robots are capable of have been seen by millions of people on YouTube.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert as a spin-off company from MIT Leg Laboratory. If you want to learn more about the behind-the-scenes story of Boston Dynamics, I highly recommend listening to the conversation Lex Fridman had with Robert Playter, the CEO of the company.
In the last 10 years, Boston Dynamics has changed owners three times. In 2013, the company was acquired by Google X (alongside a couple more robotics companies) for an unknown price. Four years later, in 2017, Alphabet sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank Group, also for an undisclosed sum. Boston Dynamics stayed with SoftBank until 2020 when it became a part of Hyundai Motor Company. In 2021, Hyundai completed the acquisition of Boston Dynamics from SoftBank in a deal worth $1.1 billion. Hyundai now owns an 80% stake in Boston Dynamics and SoftBank, through one of its affiliates, retains the remaining 20% stake.
In the meantime, Boston Dynamics was busy transforming itself from purely a research and development company into a company manufacturing and selling robots. In 2016, Boston Dynamics presented Spot, which after several years of work became commercially available in 2020 for $74,500. In 2021, the company unveiled their second product, Stretch, a mobile robotic arm designed to pick up and move around boxes or other items in the warehouse.
But what interests us here is Atlas - Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot.
Atlas’ origin can be found in PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin), a project funded by the US Army to develop a humanoid robot to test the special clothing used by soldiers for protection against chemical warfare agents.
Atlas made its first public appearance in 2013. At that time, Gill Pratt, a program manager at the DARPA, compared Atlas’ capabilities to that of a 1-year-old child. “A 1-year-old child can barely walk, a 1-year-old child falls down a lot,” he said. “As you see these machines and you compare them to science fiction, just keep in mind that this is where we are right now.”
Just a couple of years later, in 2017, Boston Dynamics was showing on YouTube how Atlas was able to jump, do backflips, and run in the wild. In 2021, Atlas showed its parkour skills and even learned how to dance.
Each of those videos was watched by millions of people, enticing everything from awe to fear. In any case, both Atlas and Spot have become more than just robots - they become a cultural phenomenon. They have been featured in a Super Bowl ad, danced with BTS and been an extra in Star Wars.
Boston Dynamics hasn’t revealed any plans to commercialize Atlas anytime soon and will use Atlas as a research and development project. However, Atlas is a state-of-the-art humanoid robot showcasing what the cutting edge of robotics technology is capable of. Atlas is a benchmark against which every other humanoid robot, whether their creators like it or not, will be compared.
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At the AI Day in 2021, Elon Musk announced that Tesla is working on a humanoid robot then codenamed Tesla Bot. Rather infamously, instead of showing a prototype, a human in a robot costume entered a stage.
During the event, the robot was shown to be able to walk and manipulate objects such as a watering can. The robot shown a year ago was built with off-the-shelf components but the production model will have custom components. The production model will be capable of moving all its fingers independently and to be able to operate tools designed for humans.
Optimus will be powered by the same computer that powers Tesla’s Autopilot. Tesla promises the robot will be easy to train new tasks.
Elon Musk said Optimus would be an “extremely capable robot,” manufactured in very high volume (ultimately millions of units). “The importance of Optimus will become apparent in the coming years. Those who are insightful or looking, listening carefully, will understand that Optimus will ultimately be worth more than the car business, worth more than FSD”, said Musk a couple of days after Tesla AI Day 2022.
Optimus is expected to eventually cost much less than a car, at under $20,000. The first production Optimus units should be rolling out by the end of 2023. Initially, Optimus will be used in Tesla’s factories, helping build electric cars, and giving valuable feedback to the robotics team. Tesla estimates the robots will be commercially available around 2027.
Agility Robotics Digit
Founded in 2016 as a spin-off from Oregon State University, Agility Robotics gained attention for its unconventional approach to bipedal robots. While everyone was working on humanoid bipedal robots, Agility Robotics built Cassie - a bipedal robot inspired by ostriches.
Thanks to its unique design, Cassie became an extremely agile bipedal robot. It is also the fastest bipedal robot, holding the world record for the 100m sprint. It completed it in 24.73 seconds.
In 2019, Agility Robotics unveiled a new bipedal robot named Digit. Using Cassie as a base, the team at Agility Robotics added a humanoid torso with arms and a head. Soon after revealing Digit, Agility Robotics announced a partnership with Ford to use Digit as the last step in the delivery process - delivering the packages to the door.
Digit is 175 cm tall, weighs 65kg and can carry up to 16 kg. According to the spec provided on the company’s website, Digit can work 16 out of 24 hours (2 FTE equivalent). Digit is equipped with simple gripper hands. Agility Robotics envisions Digit to be used in warehouses where it can work alongside humans.
In 2022, Agility Robotics became a part of the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund worth $1 billion. A day later, the company announced that it had raised $150 million in Series B, bringing the total value invested in the company to $178.8 million.
Of all the robots mentioned here, Digit is the only humanoid bipedal robot that is currently commercially available and in production.
Founded in 2022, Figure is a relatively new player in the humanoid robot space. But that does not stop them from promising Figure 01 to be “the world’s first commercially viable autonomous humanoid robot”.
It is an ambitious goal, for which Brett Adcock, Figure founder and CEO, has assembled a team of over 40 engineers who previously worked at such companies as Boston Dynamics, Toyota Research Institute, the Institute for Human Machine Cognition, Agility Robotics, Google, and Apple. Many of them are experienced roboticists who worked on humanoid robots before.
However, so far Figure hasn’t shown any videos of their robot in action. The company only showed a promo video with renders of Figure 01. The only photo of an actual robot is hidden on Figure’s careers page.
Figure is planning to release its first humanoid robot in 2023. In March of this year, the company was completing the alpha build and by now it should have completed the second generation of its hardware and software, according to the Figure CEO, quoted by IEEE Spectrum.
1X Technologies Neo
The story of 1X Technologies began in 2014 in Norway as Halodi Robotics (the company changed the name to 1X Technologies at the beginning of 2023).
1X Technologies is already offering a humanoid robot for sale named Eve. However, Eve is not a bipedal robot. Instead of having legs, Eve moves around on a wheeled base. Apart from that, it looks like any other humanoid robot - it has a human-like torso with arms with grippers for hands and a head full of cameras and other sensors.
But 1X Technologies is also working on a proper, bipedal humanoid robot named Neo. According to 1X, Neo will be able to move like a human and be engineered for "high precision and gentle strength, with arms and legs modelled after human muscle movement."
1X envisions Neo will be used in various industries, such as security, logistics, and manufacturing, and be capable of operating machinery or handling complex tasks. Long-term, they see Neo providing "valuable home assistance and performing chores like cleaning or organizing," or as "support to individuals with mobility challenges, fetching items and providing companionship."
1X Technologies promises that Neo will be open for preorders end of 2023.
1X Technologies was put in the spotlight when it was revealed that OpenAI invested in the company in March 2023. This news came as a bit of a surprise for some people (this happened not so long after GPT-4 was released and the hype around OpenAI was at its all-time high). However, one of OpenAI’s technical goals is to build a household robot.
Sanctuary AI Phoenix
The robot is 1.7m tall, weighs 70kg and can hold up to 25kg of payload. Sanctuary AI highlights Phoenix’s industry-leading dexterous hands and shows what it is capable of on its YouTube channel. Phoenix is powered by a built-in-house Carbon AI control system, aiming to be the first “general-purpose” robot with “human-like intelligence”. The robot can operate autonomously or be piloted by a human operator.
Sanctuary AI has raised $89.7 million to fulfil the mission “to create the world’s first human-like intelligence in general-purpose robots”. The company plans to make Phoenix available for purchase later this year.
Apptronik was founded in 2016 as a spin-off from the Human Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Texas, but the team has been building humanoid robots way before that. The team, which would later become Apptronik, gained experience in building humanoid robots by working with NASA on Valkyrie - NASA’s first bipedal robot which in 2013 competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
In August of 2023, after seven years of research and development, and having built one robot after another, Apptronik revealed Apollo - their general-purpose two-legged humanoid robot.
The robot is approximately human-sized, standing 1.7 meters tall and weighing 73 kilograms, with a maximum payload of 25 kg. It can run for about 4 hours on a swappable battery. The company currently has two of these robots and is in the process of building four more. Apollo will be available in two versions - one as a bipedal robot and the second as just the torso with arms and head.
Apptronik hopes that Apollo will find use in warehouses and manufacturing plants in the near future, and will eventually expand into areas such as construction, oil and gas, electronics production, retail, home delivery, elder care, and more sectors.
This year, the Austin-based firm focuses on in-house demonstrations with the Apollo alpha units. Next year, Apollo is planning to have field tests with production units, leading up to the robots being commercially available by the end of 2024. With enough scale in production, Apptronik hopes to offer Apollo for about $50,000.
In 2022, Xiaomi surprised everyone with the newest creation out of Xiaomi Robotics Lab - a walking robot named Xiaomi CyberOne.
Even though Xiaomi is mostly associated with consumer electronics, the company has a robotics division that in 2021 produced a robotic dog named CyberDog. Recently, Xiaomi released CyberDog 2, the second generation of their robotic dog.
The video above is most likely a 3D render but Xiaomi has proven CyberOne is a real robot when it joined Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun on stage during a launch event.
CyberOne weighs 52kg and stands 177cm tall. It has a top speed of 3.6km/h.
Xiaomi does not seem to have plans to release CyberOne anytime soon. According to an analysis by Evan Ackerman at IEEE Spectrum, CyberOne will remain a research project and testing platform for new technologies. And even if they would be available for purchase, the price tag would be somewhere between $90,000 and $100,000.
Fourier Intelligence GR-1
Founded in 2015 in Shanghai, Fourier Intelligence focuses on rehabilitation robotics, such as exoskeletons, functional electrical stimulation devices and other devices that help people regain full control of their bodies.
In 2023, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, Fourier unveiled GR-1 - their very own general-purpose humanoid robot that the company secretly worked on for three years.
GR-1 stands 165cm tall, weighs 55kg and can walk at a speed of 5km/h while carrying a 50kg load.
The GR-1 robot has already been delivered in small quantities to some universities and AI companies for research and development, according to Alex Gu, founder and CEO of Fourier. The company plans to begin mass production by the end of 2023 and deliver thousands of units in 2024.
Recently, the company used their experience in building robot dogs and revealed its own humanoid robot named H1.
The Unitree H1 robot is 1.8m tall, weighs 47kg and can walk at a speed of about 5km/h.
Unitree did not disclose when H1 will be available to buy. However, the video above claims the robot will be commercially available within the next 3 to 10 years and to cost under $90,000.
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