Apptronik prepares its humanoid robot for a summer unveiling

by The Insights

Jeff Cardenas shoots pull out his MacBook. The Apptronik co-founder and CEO has a slideshow he wants to show, charting the Austin startup’s seven-year history. Indeed, it requires a bit of contextualization. Like many other robotics companies, the company was fueled by government contracts in its early days.

The first was Valkyrie 2, the second iteration of NASA’s humanoid space robot. The start-up was one of the few companies tasked with helping bring this system to life. His contribution to the puzzle were liquid-cooled robotic actuators developed at the University of Texas Human Centered Robots Laboratory, led by Apptronik co-founder and chief scientist Luis Sentis.

Then come the exoskeletons. United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which was in the market for “iron man suits”.

Picture credits: Brian Heater

“[The]the exoskeleton was liquid-cooled,” says Cardenas. “We learned a lot by doing this. The complexity of the system was too high. It was heavy. We remotized all the actuators. And then we started making what was the simplest version of a humanoid robot: a mobile manipulator. We started getting approached by a lot of logistics people, who didn’t want to pay to make weapons. They were too specific for what they needed. What they wanted was an affordable robotic logistics arm.

Industrial weapons have been by far the tip of the spear, having existed for about 60 years. At that time, manufacturers like Fanuc and Kuka developed millimeter precision. This is something that is essential for manufacturing and overkill for most logistics jobs. Installing electrical systems in cars, for example, requires much more precision than moving a box from point a to point b.

“What a lot of people are doing in humanoid robots is basically trying to build them the same way we’ve been building industrial robotic arms for a long time,” says Cardenas. “One of Apptronik’s key ideas is that the way we need to build these robots – when you have a system with 30 degrees of freedom – is fundamentally different. The things we need are different. We need them to be safe around humans, we need them to be very resilient to the environment they are in. We need them to be very energy efficient, this is a new set of constraints that we are trying to optimize.Taking the same architectures of all the arms you see there [at Automate] and extrapolating it doesn’t make sense. It’s a fundamentally different architecture where we have about a third fewer components per actuator, it takes about a third the assembly time.

Picture credits: Apptronik

For a number of reasons, logistics is a logical place for a company like Apptronik. Not everyone wants to be backed by government contracts forever. Over the past few years, logistics/fulfillment has become the hottest category in robotics. Like countless other companies that have moved from research into the world of commercial products, the company had to determine if the right market existed for the technology it was creating.

“The goal was to reach the humanoid,” Cardenas explains. “The humanoid is kind of the holy grail. Probably the only thing that was consistent when we started was, ‘Don’t do humanoids. They’re too complicated.’

The true value of humanoid robots in the workplace is still an open question. But at the very least, Apptronik isn’t the only one asking. Tesla’s highly publicized Optimus announcement shook something up. Suddenly, companies operating in stealth mode felt compelled to announce their own intentions. Startups like 1X and Figure discussed their progress to varying degrees. Sanctuary AI, which has partnered with Apptronik hardware, has already started piloting systems.

Apptronik, for its part, has so far shown two robot halves. There is Astra, the upper body of a humanoid robot, which can be mounted on an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). At the other end is Draco, who is literally all legs. The company calls it its “first biped”, which is true – but that’s really all there is.

Part of our impromptu slideshow includes videos of the slender legs walking around the Apptronik labs. It didn’t reach Cassie’s speeds at first glance, but just looking at it, the gait seems faster than what Tesla has shown in its recent Optimus videos. What becomes clear after reviewing a handful of these seemingly disparate projects is that Apptronik has been building its own complete humanoid robot piece by piece from the ground up.

Picture credits: Apptronik

Cardenas says the business started for much of its existence, growing to about 40 to 50 people. It will explore a Series A this year, following the official unveiling of its full humanoid system this summer. “We have all these basic elements,” he adds. “A big part of it was iterating and trying new ideas. The advantage of the bootstrap is that we have believed in it for a long time. We’ve been working on this for about a decade as a team, since Valkyrie.

At present, the company is working on walking and building the robot’s basic functionality before launch. He naturally wants to demonstrate that the product actually works as intended before showing it to the world. It’s a markedly different approach to what Tesla did with Optimus, and if all goes according to plan, it will propel the company towards its next major boost.

Cardenas shows me images — both renders and photos — of Apollo, the system he plans to launch this summer. I can’t share them here, but I can tell you that the design goes against the kind of convergent evolution I described, which found Tesla, Figure, and OpenAI-backed 1X showing renders with a language shared design. Apollo seems – in a nutshell – more user-friendly than any of these systems and NASA’s Valkyrie robot that preceded it.

It shares many more design qualities with Astra. In fact, I might even go so far as to describe it as a cartoonish aesthetic, with a head shaped like an old-school iMac, and a combination of button and display eyes making up the face. While it’s true that most people won’t interact with these systems, which are designed to work in places like warehouses and factories, you don’t have to embrace worry to seem cool.

In some ways, the versatile part is harder than the humanoid part. That’s not to say that building a fully mobile, articulated bipedal robot is easy by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a big gulf between special purpose and general purpose. The precise definition of the latter is a conversation for another day, but for many the label describes a fully adaptable system on the fly. For some, that means something like an API and app store for third-party developers to build skills, but the systems still have to adapt to their environment. Ideally, it’s a machine that can do any task a human can do.

Too often, people fail to recognize the vast common ground that multi-purpose systems are. For now, it’s a much more pragmatic place to operate. Tesla’s notion of a robot that can work in the factory all day, run your errands, and come home and cook you dinner feeds into existing outlandish expectations that have been fueled by decades of science fiction.

“To make it do multiple things,” Cardenas says, “is still early days, but there are enough applications where if we can do simple things like move a box from point a to point b, it there are tens of thousands of units”. value of requests for these applications.

Like any work in space, these conversations require the caveat that we are still in the very early stages. Agility is arguably the most advanced in terms of proving the effectiveness of a humanoid (or at least bipedal) robot in a warehouse. But even they have a long way to go.

Either way, the next few years will provide fascinating insight into the direction these culminations of decades of research are taking.

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