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Robotic Automations

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas humanoid robot goes electric | TechCrunch

Atlas lies motionless in a prone position atop interlocking gym mats. The only soundtrack is the whirring of an electric motor. It’s not quiet, exactly, but it’s nothing compared to the hydraulic jerks of its ancestors.

As the camera pans around the robot’s back, its legs bend at the knees. It’s a natural movement, at first, before crossing into an uncanny realm, like something out of a Sam Raimi movie. The robot, which appeared to be lying on its back, has effectively switched positions with this clever bit of leg rotation.

As Atlas fully stands, it does so with its back to the camera. Now the head spins around 180 degrees, before the torso follows suit. It stands for a moment, offering the camera its first clear view of its head — a ring light forming the perimeter of a perfectly round screen. Once again, the torso follows the head’s 180, as Atlas walks away from the camera and out of frame.

A day after retiring the hydraulic version of its humanoid robot, Boston Dynamics just announced that — like Bob Dylan before it — Atlas just went electric.

The pace is fast, the steps still a bit jerky — though significantly more fluid than many of the new commercial humanoids to which we’ve been introduced over the past couple of years. If anything, the gait brings to mind the brash confidence of Spot, Atlas’ cousin whose branch on the evolutionary tree forked off from the humanoid a few generations ago.

All-new Atlas

The new version of the robot is virtually unrecognizable. Gone is the top-heavy torso, the bowed legs and plated armor. There are no exposed cables anywhere to be found on the svelte new mechanical skeleton. The company, which has warded off reactionary complaints of robopocalypse for decades, has opted for a kinder, gentler design than both the original Atlas and more contemporary robots like the Figure 01 and Tesla Optimus.

The new robot’s aesthetic more closely matches that of Agility’s Digit and Apptronik’s Phoenix. There’s a softer, more cartoonish design to the traffic-light-headed robot. It’s the “All New Atlas,” according to the video. Boston Dynamics has bucked its own trend by maintaining the research name for a product it will be positioning toward commercialization. SpotMini became Spot. Handle became Stretch. For now, however, Atlas is still Atlas.

“We might revisit this when we really get ready to build and deliver in quantity,” Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter tells TechCrunch. “But I think for now, maintaining the branding is worthwhile.”

The executive’s statement betrays the still early stages of the project. Boston Dynamics’ current timeline has the electric Atlas beginning pilot testing at Hyundai facilities earlier next year, with full production a few years further down the road.

“We’re going to be doing experiments with Hyundai on-site, beginning next year,” says Playter. “We already have equipment from Hyundai on-site. We’ve been working on this for a while. To make this successful, you have to have a lot more than just cool tech. You really have to understand that use case, you’ve got to have sufficient productivity to make investment in a robot worthwhile.”

Doing a 180

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

What’s most striking about the 40-second “All New Atlas” teaser is the robot’s movements. They’re a reminder that building a humanoid robot doesn’t require making the robot as human as possible. As an investor pointed out to me years back, billions of years of evolution hasn’t made us humans perfect machines. If we are going to create machines in our own images, why not build ones that can do things we can’t?

“We built a set of custom, high-powered and very flexible actuators at most joints,” says Playter. “That’s a huge range of motion. That really packs the power of an elite athlete into this tiny package, and we’ve used that package all over the robot.”

One thing worth keeping in mind while watching the footage is that Boston Dynamics has made its name across decades of viral videos. Recent additions to the canon are just as likely to showcase a ’bot’s dance moves as they are anything genuinely useful in an industrial setting. For that reason, it’s difficult to decouple what the company has deemed real functionality and what is just a bit of showing off.

Starting in the prone position, for instance, is an opportunity to showcase that cool reverse crab leg trick — but it’s practical, as well. As Boston Dynamics was more than happy to showcase in the hydraulic Atlas’ farewell video, falling down is part of the job — and so, too, is getting up. The truth of the matter is that most of the current crop of industrial robots require human intervention when they fail. A robot that can simply dust itself off and get back to work, on the other hand, is a big win for productivity.

The system’s ability to turn on a dime also lends considerably to its productivity potential. It brings to mind Agility’s Digit demos (the company is notably the only one of its ilk demoing systems at this scale), wherein a robot walks to a shelf, turns around, walks to the conveyer belt, turns around and walks back. Multiply that job by hundreds — or even thousands — of times a day, and you begin to see the value of shaving off precious seconds.

“It’s going to be capable of a set of motions that people aren’t,” explains Playter. “There will be very practical uses for that.”

Significantly reducing the robot’s turn radius is also important in tight spaces. Remember, these machines are meant to be brownfield solutions — that is, they’re designed to be plugged into existing workflows in existing spaces. Increased maneuverability could ultimately mean the difference between working in a setting and having to redo the layout.

Head and hands

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

The hands aren’t brand new for the video, having previously made appearances on the hydraulic model. They do, however, also represent the company’s decision to not hue entirely to human design as a guiding force. Here, the difference is as simple as opting for three fingers, instead of four on the end effectors.

“There’s so much complexity in a hand,” says Playter. “When you’re banging up against the world with actuators, you have to be prepared for reliability and robustness. So, we designed these with fewer than five fingers to try to control their complexity. We’re continuing to explore generations of those. We want compliant grasping, adapting to a variety of shapes with rich sensing on board, so you understand when you’re in contact.

Internally, the most contentious aspect of the design may well be the head. The big, round display has shades of a cosmetic mirror.

“It was one of the design elements we fretted over quite a bit,” says Playter. “Everybody else had a sort of humanoid shape. I wanted it to be different. We want it to be friendly and open. It provides a palette for a display. Of course, there are sensors buried in there, but also the shape is really intended to indicate some friendliness. That will be important for interacting with these things in the future.”

An Atlas for Christmas

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

The landscape has changed dramatically in the decade since the hydraulic Atlas’ introduction. Electric Atlas has a fair bit of company, in the form of humanoid robots from Figure, Apptronik, Tesla and 1X, among others.

“For us, there’s obviously been a huge influx of interest. I think that influx has been motivated by three events. Boston Dynamics got acquired [by Hyundai] for nearly a billion dollars. That sort of woke everybody up like, ‘whoa, there’s an exit path.’ Tesla expressing interest in manufacturing sort of validated things we’ve been doing for a long time. And then, the emergence of AI as a tool to help deal with generality is making all of this feasible. We’ve been patient to announce, because we wanted to do enough research to understand that we can solve manipulation problems and be confident in a new generation of machine.

In spite of Boston Dynamics’ big head start in humanoids, Playter says the company got the new robot’s first build together around Christmas 2023. Before that, it was working through many of the more complex problems in simulation.

This week, it seems, the company is finally ready to begin showing off what the robot can do — or at least the early stages of what it’s planning with the system.

General intelligence

One thing you can definitely say about Elon Musk is the guy makes big promises. In the earliest public-facing days of Optimus, when the Tesla ’bot appeared to be little more than a spandex-clad human, the executive spoke of a system that could do it all. Your Optimus could work all day in the factory, do your grocery shopping and then cook you dinner. That’s the dream, right?

The truth of the matter is, of course, one built around baby steps. Robotics firms may already be discussing “general-purpose humanoids,” but their systems are scaling one task at a time. For most, that means moving payloads from point A to B. Truly utilizing the form factor, however, will require a more generalized intelligence.

It appears the app store model might present the clearest path there. Developer access has, after all, been a big part of growing out Spot’s feature set. Playter, however, says Boston Dynamics won’t be taking that approach with Atlas.

“We are definitely going to target an application ourself and not build a platform,” he says. Our experience is that the way to go fast is for us to focus on an application and go solve problems — and not assume someone else is going to solve it for us. I do think AI is an essential piece here. To support the generality of tasks is going to take and will be reinforced with AI techniques.”

The company recently opened access to Spot’s reinforcement learning algorithm for developers. That work will be foundational to Atlas’ growing skillset.

Outside the box

To be successful, Playter explains, humanoids have to move beyond the boxes.

“I think you can do that with so many other robots,” he says. “Humanoids need to be able to support a huge generality of tasks. You’ve got two hands. You want to be able to pick up complex, heavy geometric shapes that a simple box picker could not pick up — and you’ve got to do hundreds of thousands of those. I think the single-task robot is a thing of the past. Stretch is one of the last applications where you can have a robot just moving around boxes and make it work.”

If not boxes, what will the new Atlas be tasked with on the Hyundai show floor? The answer can be found in a video posted by the company back in February, which saw the hydraulic version of the robot interacting with car struts — the Hyundai components to which Playter alluded to earlier.

“Our long history in dynamic mobility means we’re strong and we know how to accommodate a heavy payload and still maintain tremendous mobility,” he says. “I think that’s going to be a differentiator for us, being able to pick up heavy, complex, massive things. That strut in the video probably weighs 25 pounds. Picking up wheels — we’ll launch a video later as part of this whole effort showing a little bit more of the manipulation tasks with real-world objects we’ve been doing with Atlas. I’m confident we know how to do that part, and I haven’t seen others doing that yet.”

Software Development in Sri Lanka

Robotic Automations

Apple lays off over 600 employees in California after abandoning electric car project | TechCrunch

Apple is laying off 614 employees in California after abandoning its electric car project. According to the WARN notice posted by the California Employment Development Department, Apple notified the affected employees on March 28 and the changes will go into effect on May 27. Affected employees worked at eight locations in Santa Clara, roughly 45 miles south of San Francisco.

Although the notice doesn’t specify which projects the employees were working on, Bloomberg reports that most of the affected employees were working at buildings related to its canceled car project, while others were working at a facility for its next-generation screen development.

Apple wound down both of these projects toward the end of February. The company started working on its car project, known internally as “Project Titan,” in 2014, and told employees that it was canceling it on February 27. Bloomberg reported at the time that some remaining employees who were working on the car project would be shifted to Apple’s generative AI projects.

Around the same time, Apple reportedly ended efforts to design and develop its own next-generation displays. The displays were supposed to be added to the company’s Apple Watch before potentially going into the company’s other devices.

The layoffs mark Apple’s first major round of job cuts post-pandemic.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Software Development in Sri Lanka

Robotic Automations

Apple’s electric car loss could be home robotics’ gain | TechCrunch

For every tech success story, there are countless projects that slam headlong into the brick wall of reality. Apple’s electric vehicle ambitions are one of the most recent — and, frankly, best — examples of a project failing in spite of seeming to have everything going for it.

The jury is still out on the ultimate fate of the Vision Pro, but at the very least, Apple’s mixed reality headset demonstrates that the company isn’t afraid to keep trying where pretty much everyone else has failed. With the Apple Car firmly in the rearview, the company is reportedly exploring yet another notoriously difficult path: home robots.

The category is both unique and uniquely difficult for a number of reasons. One thing that sets it apart from other categories is the fact that there’s been precisely one success story: the robot vacuum. It’s been 22 years since the first Roomba was introduced, and for the past two decades, an entire industry (including iRobot itself) has been chasing that success.

iRobot’s inability to strike gold a second time is not for lack of trying. In the nearly quarter-century since it introduced Roomba, it’s given us gutter clearers, pool cleaners, lawn mowers and even a Roomba specifically designed to remove screws and other hardware detritus off garage floors. In spite of those efforts, however, the company has fared best when it focused its resources back into its robot vacuum.

Image Credits: iRobot

The robot vacuum succeeded for the same reason any robot has ever succeeded: It was a product built to perform a single in-demand task repetitively to the best of its ability. To this day, vacuums are the battlefield on which the home robot wars are fought. Take the well-funded Bay Area startup Matic. The former Google/Nest engineers who founded the company believe the next breakthrough in the home will be built on the foundation of robot vacuums. Their case, in part, is that iRobot effectively painted itself into a corner with its puck-like form factor.

Those early Roombas weren’t built with today’s sensing and mapping capabilities in mind. Matic believes that by simply making the robot taller, you dramatically improve its vantage point. This was also the driver behind the most interesting innovation found on Amazon’s Astro home robot: the periscope camera.

Image Credits: Amazon

The fact is that home robot functionality is severely hampered by form factor. The hockey puck design that’s prevalent across robot vacuums isn’t ideal for anything beyond the core functionality it’s built for. To effectively perform more of the sorts of tasks people might desire in a home robot, the hardware needs to get more complex. Mobile manipulators are a great moving target. That is to say, if you want a helping hand, a hand is a good place to start.

Like so many other things in this world, however, mobile manipulators are deceptively difficult. In fact, industrial robotics haven’t cracked it yet. Big, bolted-down arms are common in manufacturing, and wheeled autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) like Locus and Kiva are common in warehouses, but the middle ground between the two hasn’t been firmly established. This is a big part of the reason the human element remains important in that world. It’s a problem that will be solved soon enough, but it seems likely it will happen with these more expensive industrial machines well before it makes its way into more affordable home robots (as a rule, corporations generally have deeper pockets than people).

This is also a big part of the reason many are championing the humanoid form factor in the workplace (human beings, after all, offer a kind of mobile manipulation). But that’s a longwinded think piece for another day.

Image Credits: Hello Robotics

Mobile manipulation isn’t entirely out of reach for home robots. Hello Robot’s Stretch is probably the most compelling example at the moment. Rather than a humanoid form factor, the robot looks like a Roomba with a pole mounted in its center. This houses both an imaging system and an arm that moves up and down to clasp objects (dishes, laundry) at different heights. Of course, some tasks are more easily accomplished with two arms — and suddenly you start to see why so many robotics firms have effectively backward-engineered humanoids.

In its current form, Stretch is prohibitively expensive at $24,950. That’s likely a big part of the reason the company is selling it as a development platform. Interestingly, Matic sees its own robot as a kind of development platform — using vacuuming as a gateway into additional home chores.

Another issue with Stretch is that it’s teleoperated (the company sent us a note after this published stating that some developers have created autonomous functions). There’s nothing wrong with teleop in many scenarios, but it seems unlikely that people are going to flock to a home robot that’s being controlled by a human somewhere far away.

Navigation is another key barrier to the home. Compared to warehouses and factories, homes are relatively unstructured environments. They differ greatly from one to another, lighting tends to be all over the place and humans are constantly moving stuff around and dropping things on the floor.

Matic’s vacuum uses an array of cameras to map spaces — and understand where it is in them. Image Credits: Matic

The world of self-driving has faced its own obstacles on this front. But the key difference between an autonomous robot on the highway and another in the home is that the worst the latter is probably going to do is knock something off a shelf. That’s bad, but very rarely does it result in death. With self-driving cars, on the other hand, any accident represents a significant step back for the industry. The technology is — perhaps understandably — being held to a higher standard than its human counterpart.

While adoption of self-driving technologies is well behind the curve that many anticipated, largely for the above safety reason, many of the technologies developed for the category have helped quietly kickstart their own robotics revolution, as autonomous vehicles take over farms and sidewalks.

This is likely a big part of the reason it might view home robots as “the next big thing” (to quote Bloomberg quoting its sources). Apple has no doubt pumped a tremendous amount of resources into driving technologies. If those could be repurposed for a different project, maybe it won’t all be for naught.

While the reports note that Apple “hasn’t committed” to either the robotic smart screen or mobile robot that are said to exist somewhere inside the company’s skunkworks, it has already put Apple Home execs Matt Costello and Brian Lynch on the hardware side of things, while SVP of Machine Learning and AI Strategy John Giannandrea is said to be involved on the AI side of things.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Given the proximity to its home efforts, one can imagine the company working on its own version of Amazon’s Astro — though that project currently exists as more of a cautionary tale for the time being. The project has been hamstrung by high cost and a lack of useful features to justify it. The system also effectively served as a mobile Alexa portal, and home assistants have largely fallen out of fashion of late.

Apple does have some robotics expertise — though nothing approaching what Amazon has on its industrial side. The company has been involved in the production of robot arms like Daisy, which salvages key metals from discarded iPhones. That’s still a pretty large leap to a home robot.

Perhaps the company could take a more Vision Pro-like approach to the category, which has a heavy focus on developer contributions. Doing so, however, would require an extremely versatile hardware platform, which would almost certainly be cost-prohibitive for most consumers, making the Vision Pro’s $3,500 price tag look like small potatoes.

Software Development in Sri Lanka