Digit, the bipedal robot developed by Agility Robotics, will continue to evolve and improve, including the addition of a head and some figures of its own, according to co-founders Damion Shelton and Jonathan Hurst.
Just don’t expect Digit to talk or have numbers that look like human hands.
Introduced in 2019, Digit initially seemed destined for a life of last-mile delivery. Recently, the startup that emerged from Oregon State University has shifted its focus to logistics. The goal: to make Digit a platform for general work such as unpacking trucks and moving boxes in warehouses.
“Our whole vision of what Digit is is like a platform that allows you to turn physical work into a software application,” Shelton said during an interview and demo of Digit on Thursday at TC Sessions: Robotics.
That vision means Agility is constantly making improvements on the software side and adding hardware where it makes sense.
“The applications we do now are the home runs. It’s such huge markets,” Hurst said during the demonstration where Digit picked up a carrier bag and carried it to a conveyor belt. “When we do these things in a reliable and humane way, that’s what really makes the company. And we have a lot of the solution here.”
Hurst, who is also CTO, noted that future improvements could include Digit being able to go to the charging station to charge or perform other common tasks. And when it comes to a hand and face, Hurst said it won’t be like a human.
“They’re going to be something very specific to the use cases we want to achieve,” Hurst explained. “We’re also going to have a bit of a head on the robot. And along with the theme of everything we’ve done, where physics comes first and function first, it’s about telling people what the robot is going to do. It also involves placing antennas and sensors there. And so these things just keep refining and developing the robot for its function.”
Digit will also have a head with a pair of digital eyes that will help people understand where it is going and what its intentions are. The robot does have a speaker, but it doesn’t talk.
“I don’t think it’s time to talk to the robots,” Hurst said. “You know, when you talk to Siri, or you talk to Alexa, they don’t always do what you want. I like to make sure we manage expectations so people treat this like a work animal, maybe it’s a partner, but it is not a pear.”
The startup, which recently raised $150 million in a round led by Playground Global and DCVC and including the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund, is putting that money to work. Shelton noted that the company has doubled in size to more than 130 employees since January and is investing in other areas such as vertically integrating its own manufacturing process, enabling cloud fleet management, working with its customers’ systems and integration with the warehouse management systems in partner locations.
Despite its focus on warehouses, according to Shelton, Agility is not turning its back on delivery.
“We still strongly believe that last-mile delivery is likely to be the forever home of robots, as it is a task where legs specifically are a very unique offering compared to other solutions,” Shelton said. It is one of the few technologies that can arguably navigate through 100% of human environments because of our ability to navigate those environments. And so even if you assume a world that is 50 years in the future, where all warehouses are new greenfield structures that are fully automated from the start, there is still a need for robots to move through the outdoor environment.”
He added that from a deployment and safety perspective, it is easier to focus on indoor tasks.
“The reality is that market is so big, it could keep us busy for quite some time,” Shelton said.