The future might seem reminiscent of science fiction, where humanoid robots handle household chores or construct lunar habitats. Such ideas are becoming more than mere fiction as Austin-based robotics startup Apptronik envisions a world where versatile general-purpose robots step in for humans, managing “dull, dirty, and dangerous” tasks. According to CNN, their latest creation, the humanoid robot Apollo, was recently unveiled. Apollo stands at a human-scale height of 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 160 pounds.
It’s not just a prototype; this robot is designed for mass production and safe collaboration with humans. Differentiating itself from traditional hydraulically powered robots, Apollo operates on electricity and comes equipped with a four-hour battery, replaceable for a 22-hour work shift. To avoid the unsettling “uncanny valley” effect, often associated with human-like appearances that evoke discomfort, the robot’s design incorporates approachable and friendly features, a strategic move by Austin-based firm Argo design.
Apollo communicates its status clearly through digital panels on its chest, indicating remaining battery life, ongoing tasks, projected completion times, and upcoming actions. With intentional movements, including head-turning gestures to signify its direction, Apollo becomes an approachable and relatable presence in various environments. The initial application of Apollo is focused on logistics, aimed at alleviating labour shortages by handling physically demanding roles within warehouses.
However, Apptronik’s vision for Apollo extends far beyond its initial use, spanning at least a decade. Jeff Cardenas, the CEO of Apptronik, highlights their ambition to create versatile robots that undertake tasks humans prefer not to do, both on Earth and eventually on celestial bodies like the moon and Mars. He emphasizes that the primary goal is to optimize human-robot interaction to free up valuable human time.
The genesis of Apollo’s design traces back to the Valkyrie robot, a NASA project Apptronik worked on during the DARPA Robotics Challenge from 2012 to 2013. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches and weighing 300 pounds, Valkyrie is a bipedal humanoid robot endowed with dexterous capabilities like manipulation and walking, enabling it to navigate obstacles, carry objects, and even open doors. Since its debut, Valkyrie has undergone refinements and adaptations, currently serving as a remote caretaker for unmanned and offshore energy facilities in Australia.
Apollo’s roots can be traced to the foundation of Valkyrie’s design, and Apptronik has spent years honing its expertise in building unique robotic components. Their aim was to create a humanoid robot that thrives in environments crafted for humans. Unlike conventional specialized robots tethered to specific tasks, Apptronik aspired to make Apollo the “iPhone of robots,” capable of performing a multitude of functions through software updates.
The company’s focus on affordability and adaptability drives the vision for Apollo. By integrating cameras and artificial intelligence systems, they’ve shifted away from relying solely on intricate precision parts, making production more cost-effective. Apptronik aims to secure commercial clients and partners this year to integrate Apollo into logistics operations, with the goal of full-scale commercial production by 2024.
Apollo’s journey will commence with roles in factories and warehouses, performing tasks like moving boxes and carts. Over time, its capabilities will expand through new models and updates, enabling its participation in construction, electronics production, retail, home delivery, and elder care. At the core of Apollo’s design lies its actuators, akin to human muscles, enabling it to walk, flex its arms, and manipulate objects.
Dr. Nick Paine, Apptronik’s co-founder and CTO, highlights the simplification of complexity as a pivotal engineering goal. Apollo’s intricate system houses around 30 muscle groups, essential for performing basic actions and tasks. Apollo features perception cameras in its head, while torso-mounted sensors facilitate a comprehensive 360-degree environment mapping, guiding its movements. As it negotiates obstacles and challenges, these sensors maintain their orientation, a critical feature as Apollo ventures into unpredictable settings such as the outdoors and potentially even the lunar surface.
The aspiration for Apollo to achieve autonomy remains a priority, although Apptronik seeks to retain a level of human control. Initially, control will be facilitated through tablets or smart devices, with a vision for direct human interaction. Ultimately, a person should be able to approach Apollo and communicate its tasks directly. Apptronik is aligned with NASA’s efforts in humanoid robot design, and Apollo’s testing grounds are on Earth. The potential for future versions of the robot to operate in hazardous space conditions promises a significant impact on space exploration.
While preparing humanoid robots for space comes with challenges, including adapting them to operate in a vacuum, Apollo might find its way to the International Space Station as a stepping stone. NASA’s Artemis program envisions lunar rovers by 2030, presenting a window for robots like Apollo to prove their utility. Humanoid robots like Apollo have the potential to construct and test environments fit for humans on celestial bodies, preceding astronauts’ arrival. Although designing robots for space involves overcoming unique obstacles, these challenges are essential for realizing the benefits of a more efficient and