A new video from Agility Robotics shows an increasingly familiar sight: advanced, autonomous robots performing boring tasks in the warehouse. It’s not the kind of video that tends to go hugely viral for a company, but rather, it’s the kind of meat-and-potatoes proof-of-concept that companies like Boston Dynamics place between eye-catching parkour videos and highly choreographed dance sessions.
Ultimately, though, this is precisely the kind of task that the creators of the robots are targeting: the well-known trio of boring, dirty, and dangerous. Moving payloads back and forth certainly ticks that first box pretty well. There’s a reason warehouse and fulfillment workers often liken their work to robotics.
“The conversation around automation has changed a bit,” Agility CEO Damion Shelton told TechCrunch. “It is seen as an enabling technology that allows you to maintain the workforce that you have. There is a lot of talk about the risks of automation and job loss, but job loss is actually happening now, before automated solutions. “
Digit, the bipedal robot that the company announced in 2020, had its biggest moment in the spotlight after Agility announced a partnership with auto giant Ford at CES. The auto giant currently owns two of the robots, with long-term plans to use the technology for delivery.
Today’s video is an attempt to showcase some more short-term solutions, putting Digit to work on more menial tasks.
“The value and goal of a machine like Digit is generality,” says CTO Jonathan Hurst. “It is a robot that can operate in human spaces and environments. It’s a relatively straightforward thing to do for highly structured and repetitive tasks, to say, ‘There are going to be boxes there.’ We’ll tell you which one from a database system and we want you to move it there. ‘ Maybe this is something he does three or four hours a day and then he goes to a different space and he does it for three or four hours and then he unloads a tractor trailer. “
The company sees Digit’s value as a more plug and play solution than something like Berkshire Gray’s offerings, which builds a fully automated warehouse from scratch. There is still programming involved, of course. An Agility representative will appear on site to pre-map a location and help the robot perform its repetitive tasks.
“In terms of where we can actually deploy and do useful work for a customer, it turns out that a lot of the tasks – walking from point A to point B, picking up and carrying a package – are portable in these environments,” says Shelton. “There is no real technology centerpiece that I develop, which is different for an indoor or outdoor environment. It’s just the maturity level. I think we’ve hit it pretty quickly on the inside, so it’s a logical first place for implementation. “
Agility has not announced partners beyond Ford, although it says it is currently working with “major logistics companies.” It has also not disclosed the number of Digits sold, although it tells TechCrunch that the number is “substantially more” than the dozen Cassie units it sold before Digit, primarily for research purposes. Sales are largely CapEx at the moment, although the company is exploring other opportunities, such as a RaaS (robotics-as-a-service model).
The Agility team currently numbers 56 people, primarily based in Oregon (the company started as part of OSU’s fledgling robotics division), where robots are primarily manufactured.
“We have grown quite fast since last December,” says Shelton. “We are expanding our Pittsburgh office by the end of the year, in addition to the Oregon office. We have a fairly fast growth rate. As we increase the production rate of the robots, we have had a fair amount of hiring for that. We just moved into a new facility that we remodeled in June. “