New robotics startup promises first commercially-viable humanoid robot
Developing a humanoid robot is very hard work, but a new startup called Figure says it has a plan for a general-purpose robot figured out.
At least that's what Figure says in its press release this week, announcing the company's goals to the public for the first time. That goal is an ambitious one: to build a commercially-viable humanoid robot capable of general-purpose use, meaning that it isn't designed with a specific task in mind like sorting products on an assembly line or making a delivery along a predetermined path.
Robot-on-rails are technically challenging but are the kind of thing that businesses have been taking advantage of for decades now. Trying to make a humanoid robot that can be reprogrammable on the fly to accomplish a myriad of human-oriented tasks is a whole other matter.
"We believe general purpose humanoid robots have far more potential than single-purpose robots, which are currently ubiquitous within the field," said Brett Adcock, Figure's Founder and CEO. "In early development, the tasks Figure's humanoids complete will be structured and repetitive, but over time, and with advancements in robot learning and software, we will expand capabilities and eventually see tasks being performed better than humans."
Adcock has a fairly solid team backing up the effort, including 40 industry experts from such notable robotics firms as Boston Dynamics and Tesla. Still, the company was only founded in 2022 and so far doesn't actually have a working robot, so it still has a long way to go to make good on its promises.
Building the robot of the future
“Collectively, the team has probably built 12 major humanoid robots,” Figure CTO Dr. Jerry Pratt told IEEE Spectrum. “We’ll have expertise in just about every part of the thousands of things that you need to do for humanoids.”
As of right now, the team at Figure only has CAD designs of Figure 01, its first prototype robot, but the plan is for the robot to be 1.6m tall, weigh about 60kg, and run for about five hours on a single battery charge.
Similar in look and feel to Tesla's Tesla Bot, the humanoid appearance of Figure 01 is doing a lot of the work here, at least as far as selling people on the concept. Other humanoid robots, like Boston Dynamic's Atlas, tend to be a lot bulkier in practice and it remains to be seen if Figure or Tesla will be able to slim down a robot into a human form.
“Having a humanoid form—it’s really tough doing the packaging,” Pratt said. “In general, with technology that’s available today, you can hit somewhere around 50 and 60 percent on most human specs, like degrees of freedom, peak speeds and torques, things like that. It won’t be superhuman; we’ll be focusing on real-world applications and not trying to push the limits of pure performance.”
Of course, like Tesla's Tesla Bot, whether this robot ever actually gets built is an open question. Robotics is very hard work, and the field is already crowded with companies that are soaking up a lot of the air in the room, along with the funding that goes with it.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it's still early days in the robotics race, so it's too soon to tell who will end up with the winning idea if there ever is a winner at the end of it all.
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