By Luke Dormehl
What’s the robot equivalent of Rocky Balboa running up the 72 stone steps leading up to the entranceway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? It could well be the sight of Agility Robotics’ biped robot, Digit, climbing up a wet, muddy, and not-all-that-grippable grassy hill at the company’s new HQ in Tangent, Oregon.
While the video is partly designed to show off this new home for Agility, it also demonstrates just how far its Digit tech has developed. If Rocky’s famous climb signifies the everyman overcoming great odds, Agility Robotics’ recent video is a reminder of just how impressively far robots have traveled in being able to traverse the real world. Both figuratively and literally.
“We have been spending most of our time building out all kinds of software infrastructure to enable whole-body manipulation and interaction behaviors, and to integrate these dynamic behaviors with higher-level autonomy,” Jonathan Hurst, co-founder of Agility Robotics, told Digital Trends. “Digit can localize itself within a known mapped space, and the user can identify a package to go get and bring back, and Digit can autonomously go retrieve the package off a shelf or the floor, avoid obstacles and navigate through a building, and bring the package back.”
A different approach to delivery robots
Digit is designed primarily as a delivery robot; a market that’s already got some pretty major (and successful) players, as epitomized by Starship Robotics, the delivery bot company founded by one of the former founders of Skype. But where most delivery robots opt for a design that resembles a smart drinks cooler on wheels, Digit instead opts for a bipedal design, meaning that it walks upright on two legs. This allows it to carry out actions like easily climbing steps while carrying items weighing up to 40 lbs in its arms. In all, it presents a robot that’s far more like the walking robots promised to us in science fiction. Albeit a whole lot less jerky. This also stands apart from quadruped robots like Boston Dynamics’ Spot, probably the world’s most famous real robot in 2021.
“Quadruped robots have a statically stable advantage, in that they can just stop, and stand like a table,” said Hurst. “But all animals are dynamically stable — dogs stumble as much as humans do. For dynamic motions and real agility in the world, this dynamic stability is a necessity. Digit is not yet as stable as a person, but I see the day when it’s better.”
Based on this video, it’s getting a whole lot closer all the time. The fact that most people wouldn’t find it especially remarkable to see a person walk around an uneven, hilly landscape, but that we do for robots, shows that there’s still a gap (even if it’s just in terms of public awareness) that needs to be closed. But Agility Robotics is seemingly intent on delivering on its name — and it appears to be managing it.
Ultimately, what Agility is doing with Digit isn’t just coming up with an alternative design for robots to the ones that, here in 2021, represent the status quo. It’s reaching for some seriously high-hanging fruit in the field of robotics. Building a robot that looks and moves like a human being isn’t just a simple design choice to separate it from the likes of Starship Robotics’ delivery bots; it’s about building robots that can move and operate in the real world without us having to reimagine that world to accommodate them.
Robots that can handle the real world
Today, robots are getting to grips with the real world in a way that they never have before. But, for the most part, they still require that we make special allowances for them in terms of workflow. Robots do things well, but they also do things differently. That’s where robots like Agility’s Digit change things by… well, not changing them at all.
“I think the real question is how do you [best] navigate human environments and do useful things in it,” Hurst said. “Having a humanoid form factor enables quite a lot that cannot be done as well with a quadruped. There are some specific technical challenges in doing dynamic locomotion and physical interaction at human scale — it’s why electric quadruped robots top out at a particular scale, and larger systems tend towards hydraulics. Digit has some ‘special sauce’ in how we achieve such efficient electrical actuation at human scale, with a dynamic gait. it’s going to keep getting better, too.”
Frustratingly, Hurst isn’t able to share what some of those other applications might be just yet. “In general, we’re very excited about logistics in general,” he said. He continued that: “Digit is unique in that it can work in human spaces, and go where people go, in all the environments we’ve designed around ourselves — like sidewalks and steps, hallways and workplaces.” He acknowledged that it can “do only very specific robotic jobs, as it is after all a robot, without any judgment or creativity,” but that this still opened up plenty of possible tasks it could be used for. “Imagine specific software applications for specific and well-defined logistics jobs, [such] scan boxes on conveyor, pick up box from conveyor, put it in this slot,” Hurst continued. “Like apps on a smartphone, but for physical work.”