The first time you see it, you focus on the movements—the bird-like legs, the human-ness—but also the machinery of it. “Digit”, as this newest version is named, has become somewhat of a regular sight around Albany
Jonathan Hurst has a PHD in robotics. He teaches it at Oregon State and founded Agility Robotics.
Hurst said, “For these robots to sort of be part of society and, be the sort of thing that you want to have around, you need to feel comfortable with it outside of your peripheral vision. It has to be completely safe and it has to feel completely safe.”
Early versions were just legs. Getting them to move correctly and sense steps or a slope, took years to get right. Then arms were added. “The robot can lift a 40-pound package,” Hurst explained. “The robot can catch itself when it falls and reorient to get back up.”
Now, things are blowing up for this company of 42 employees. Online shopping is the fuel. Market pressure is huge to get that stuff to you fast and free. But the cost to pay and insure drivers is even bigger.
There are at least 16 U.S. companies working on driverless fleets that would drop that dramatically.
“Once you’ve got an autonomous vehicle that does a lot of it on the road,” Hurst said, “But now you’re stuck at the curb, right? And in order to really provide that service that people want, you need to then get from the curb to the doorstep. And that’s where we solve this problem.”
There’s a mock ad for a real fleet of autonomous vehicles from Ford. It was the first company to buy two of Agility’s robots last year testing a package delivery service. The robot folds out, gets the correct box, maneuvers around objects and steps, even can remember where you want your packages to be left and then could send a delivery confirmation.
“Digit” costs $250,000. Agility will build 40 this year. As they scale up production and work out the technology, Hurst said eventually the price will drop to about $70,000. Several other unnamed Fortune 100 companies, that’s the biggest of the big, have bought these. Mostly for warehouse automation
“So many jobs that are basically robot jobs, they’re the dull, dirty, dangerous kinds of things that are injury prone and incredibly repetitive,” Hurst said. “That’s how you can then really increase the value of the jobs that the people get to do.
With all the good things robots will do, there’s certainly an equal amount of bad and deadly uses as well.
“People don’t worry so much about, you know, industrial robot arms, they worry about our robot, but that’s because it’s anthropomorphic, it looks like a person,” Hurst said. “From the very founding of the company, we’ve said, there will be no weapons on our robot, offensive or defensive. In every way that we have control as a company, contractually, who we sell to, what kind of support we can provide for robots over time and things like that. We can control those sorts of things. And that’s pretty important to us. We’re building robots to improve quality of life and to make the world a better place.”