Building robots that let humans be more human
In fiction, robots are often portrayed as displacing humans; some wait on customers at diners, replicants work as police detectives, and droids pilot starships. The real story of robotic automation is different. While technological innovation does supplant some jobs, hundreds of years of evidence show that it creates new and better jobs just as fast. And, in cases like today’s labor market, where there is literally not enough demand to fill available jobs, innovation is essential to support quality of life for people already working hard. The reality is that when people work in partnership with machines, productivity and abundance increase.
That’s the vision Agility Robotics was created to serve. The company’s humanoid robots are designed to work safely alongside humans in everyday workplaces such as warehouses, and Agility has already built and distributed more than any other robotics company in the world. DCVC is proud to announce co-leading a $150 million Series B investment round for Agility, following our lead of the company’s Series A. The Series B will allow Agility to begin scaling production of its robots for multiple major customers.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. economy had developed a troublesome hitch: there was far more demand by employers for physical-labor jobs than there were people who wanted to fill them.
For instance, in February 2020 there were already 295,000 open jobs in transportation and warehousing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then, coronavirus swept the country, and suddenly consumers wanted everything delivered to their homes. As a result, labor needs in sectors like manufacturing, warehousing, and transportation swelled at the same moment when millions of people couldn’t — or didn’t want to — continue to go to work. By February 2021, the number of unfilled transportation and warehousing jobs had skyrocketed to 366,000; a year later to 489,000. This employee shortage was one of the factors behind the supply chain snarls afflicting every category from electronics to frozen vegetables, a situation which persists today.
The problem hit some businesses harder than others. A few big, well-capitalized retailers and e‑retailers have coped with labor shortfalls by building fully automated distribution centers run by fleets of simple robots on rails. But a huge automation purchase isn’t always an option for small or mid-tier national retailers. For many of these companies, distribution revolves around warehouses that are still 100 percent dependent on manual labor, with an occasional boost from a forklift. Moreover, as giant retailers realize they need goods closer to customers — especially in an era of huge climate change impacts, costs, and shipping delays — they too are scrambling to build or utilize existing smaller distributed facilities. But these locations, while attractive from many perspectives, are hard to brute-force automate, let alone at reasonable costs.
Most robot makers have ignored this portion of the logistics industry. But the founders of Agility believe that customers shouldn’t have to build costly, immense, hyper-automated warehouses from the ground up to benefit from the robotics revolution. Existing warehouse environments are built for the human form. Agility’s engineers have spent six years perfecting humanoid robots tailor-built to work in a safe and respectful environment alongside humans. The company’s robots are intelligent, safe, and versatile enough to function in blended facilities, handling tasks that are too repetitive, painful, or unpleasant for their human coworkers.
Agility’s humanoid robots are the product of many years of cutting-edge research. Their first machine, called Cassie, was a pair of ostrich-like legs with a camera on top. Engineers and researchers used it to investigate the challenges of bipedal locomotion. Their second robot, Digit, features a torso and arms, giving it the ability to perform a wide variety of immediately useful tasks, including picking up a box or a similar-sized object and carrying it to any given location. Though Digit has elder cousins from other companies such as Asimo and Atlas which were built for and remain limited to education or demos, Digit is by far the world’s most reliable, efficient, affordable, and widely purchased humanoid robot.
This week Agility announced their most advanced robot, which maintains and improves upon Digit’s humanoid form factor. It has advanced capabilities that can meet customer requirements for specific jobs, such as loading and unloading a tractor-trailer, building or taking apart a pallet of boxes, or carrying a tote box from a conveyor belt across a crowded warehouse and placing it on the correct shelf – all smoothly, safely, and fully autonomously across a full day’s work.
“Many people have looked at it and said, ‘you’re crazy for doing tractor-trailer unloads,’ which is considered a near-impossible task for robots,” says Shelton. “With this type of unloading, you must reach things up high and down low. There’s also an enormous mobility component to the challenge: the robot must walk the length of the tractor-trailer while moving stuff, lifting, carrying, and putting things on a conveyor belt.”
These tasks are also the kind that, for humans, lead to repetitive stress injuries and bruising levels of employee turnover. In February 2020 alone, transportation and warehousing companies lost almost as many people as they hired (272,000 separations, compared to 274,000 hires).
“The average retention time at some logistics employers is less than a year,” Shelton says. “The main difficulty from the employer’s perspective is that people don’t like doing the work. In an expanding industry, what you want to be able to do is reliably fill the jobs that people enjoy and find meaningful.” In short, let robots do the jobs that people don’t want, instead of treating people like robots.
The ability for Agility’s robots to “tag in” for tired or unavailable human workers on fairly complex tasks, starts with walking skills. Devised by Agility’s co-founder and CTO Jonathan Hurst, a professor of robotics at Oregon State University, an Agility robot’s walk is characterized by a springy, bio-inspired, bird-like gait that allows it to absorb and glide past irregularities on the ground. A classic walking robot would be flummoxed by an obstacle such as a curb, or a transition from a concrete floor to a rubber mat. Digit and its successor robots from Agility don’t care.
That emphasis on balance also means the robots can generate a desired motion using force control rather than position control. Instead of mindlessly swinging their arms or legs to a given point in space regardless of what might be in the way, the way an industrial robot arm would, Digit and its successor robots from Agility apply only enough force to stay upright and support whatever load they’re carrying. This design principle, and the advanced technology behind it, make Agility robots uniquely safe for and respectful of human beings in shared spaces.
Hurst also designed all of Agility’s robots to use high-efficiency electric actuators versus hydraulics or high gear reduction motors in demo-centric, impractical robots in the market. Agility’s design breakthrough lowers power requirements, which in turn reduces noise and cooling requirements, and lowers the weight of the battery pack. The company has also taken advantage of advances from the world of smartphones and EVs, especially smaller and cheaper chipsets, cameras, and batteries. Collectively, Digit and its sibling robots can work long enough to be meaningful for many hours-long cycles of real-world tasks. Agility robots operate at an efficiency, capability, cost, and safety level that has never been built before.
The ultimate impact of Agility’s robots will be to enable industries to continue to flourish while employment for humans remains stable and their work conditions improve. Agility is leading us into a future where humans no longer must perform alienating, robotic work, supply chains are stable and robust, and goods and services for hard-working humans are available more quickly, less expensively, and with dramatically lower environmental impact.