The Future of Robots Is Coming on Two Legs

Most people have seen robots in human form. The Hollywood version has starred in movies for decades. Now there are videos on the internet of real bipedal robots, whether it’s Elon Musk’s Optimus or the incredibly flexible two-legged robot from Boston Dynamics. Agility Robotics has one with legs that bend back at the knees like a flamingo.

These robots are creepy for some and cool for others. The deeply wired first reaction to the difference in these automated tools will always make human-shaped robots a bit more controversial than the Roomba that bumps around the home or a caged-off, six-axis arm bolted to the floor of an auto factory that can flip around a car body with ease.

Like them or not, these bipedal robots will become common over time. The form isn’t just a vain attempt to glorify humans. Having two feet helps these robots fit where humans do, and the arms allow them to pick up and carry objects while on the move. Several companies and garage startups are building and testing them now. In limited cases, such as Agility Robotics’ Digit, they are deployed in initial pilot tests on warehouse floors.

They aren’t ready yet for prime time. In fact, they are still dangerous and have limitations on power and payload. Starting in 1961 with the Unimate, the first factory robot, the industry takes about two decades from initial availability to widespread deployment. This cycle may be speeding up with the recent introductions of the so-called collaborative robots and the autonomous mobile robots, known by the acronym AMRs. These two latest types of robots are paving the way for human-shaped robots.

Collaborative robots, known commonly as cobots, were a breakthrough because they sport sensors that slow or stop the motion when a human or other objects come close. This keeps them from harming a person and allows the robots to work alongside humans. This technology was invented in 1996 and hit the market less than a decade ago. Now it’s the fastest growing segment of the industrial robot market with 225,000 cobots already deployed.