2019 was an important year for legged robots as Boston Dynamics started leasing its Spot quadruped. The turn of the decade is continuing the momentum of legged robots as Agility Robotics is now selling its Digit humanoid for commercial use.
Agility Robotics is on the third version of Digit, which was first introduced February 2019. Digit’s upper torso includes integrated sensing, computing, and two 4-DOF arms that can carry up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms). Digit also has two 2-DOF feet, sealed joints for outdoor operation, a UN 38.3 certified battery for cargo air shipment, and an API so it can be used as a development platform. Digit navigates semi-autonomously thanks to LiDAR and other sensors (Intel RealSense).
Agility CEO Damion Shelton said Digit is available for “the low-mid six figures.” He said customers simply need to unbox the robot and charge it before they can start developing applications with it or using it. Agility Robotics is no longer selling its first robot, Cassie. The final Cassie delivery occurred in July 2019.
Ford purchases first 2 Digit robots
The first deliveries of Digit will be to Ford, which purchased the first two robots off the production line. The automaker said it will use the robots to continue work it announced with Agility Robotics in May 2019. Ford is exploring how Digit could be placed in self-driving delivery vans to carry packages from vans to customers’ front doors. This is what Ford is calling “last-50-feet delivery.”
“As online retailing continues growing, we believe robots will help our commercial customers build stronger businesses by making deliveries more efficient and affordable for all of us,” Ford CTO Ken Washington said in a statement. “We learned a lot this year working with Agility, now we can accelerate our exploratory work with commercial Digit robots.”
Here is a demo of how Ford and Agility envision this service.
At the time the video was released, here’s how the process was described to The Robot Report: Digit, which can fold up tightly, rides in the back of Ford’s autonomous vehicles. Using a patent-pending lift designed by Agility, Digit can get itself in and out of the vehicle. The lift mechanism latches onto the same place you would have third row seats and goes under the robot’s “armpits” to lift the robot in and out of the vehicle.
For the video, Shelton told The Robot Report local tele-operation was used to trigger behaviors for Digit at appropriate times — such as when to pick up the box and when to climb the stairs. The actual picking up of the box and climbing of the stairs were performed autonomously.
Ford is also focusing on how the robot can be used indoors for first-mile logistics and how its vehicles and Digit communicate with each other. Ford’s connected vehicles, for example, can continually update cloud-based maps that can be shared with the robot so it doesn’t have to recreate the same type of information.
“The car could even send that information into the cloud and request help from other systems to enable Digit to navigate, providing multiple levels of assistance that help keep the robot light and nimble,” Washington previously said. “Digit’s light weight also helps ensure it has a long run time, which is essential for a self-driving delivery business that will be operating most of the day.”
Milestone for Agility Robotics
Similar to its approach with Cassie, the production run for Digit will be limited in 2020. The first production run will be just six units, and Agility will reportedly produce 20-30 Digit robots this year. It hopes to at least double production in 2021.
But this is still a huge milestone for Agility Robotics and humanoids in general. The company spun out of Oregon State University in 2015 to commercialize research on bipedal locomotion. And it has done just that. Digit is the first humanoid with walking and manipulation capabilities to be sold commercially rather than just to academic institutions.
“We’re excited about the technical capabilities and advanced legged mobility of Digit,” said Jonathan Hurst, CTO of Agility. “Videos can show a solid proof of concept – but this robot is ready to go out in the world in the hands of customers, and start to really explore pragmatic use cases.”
The utility of humanoid robots has and will still be questioned, but perhaps Digit is the start of changing the tune. Boston Dynamics’ back-flipping, box-jumping Atlas is the most sophisticated humanoid, but Atlas and its capabilities will remain in the lab for the foreseeable future. In 2018, Honda halted development of its ASIMO humanoid that was introduced in 2000. But even ASIMO was primarily used by Honda as a marketing tool.
“We look forward to showing off our work on both logistics and non-logistics tasks in the coming months,” said Shelton.
If you’re at CES 2020, which takes place this week in Las Vegas, two pre-production Digit prototypes are being demoed in Ford’s booth. We suggest you go check them out.