Jeff Cardenas Draws His MacBook out. The co-founder and CEO of Apptronic has a slideshow he’d like to show the Austin startup’s seven-year history. It really takes a bit of relevancy. Like many fellow robotics firms, the company was inundated with government contracts in its early days.
First up was Valkyrie 2, the second iteration of NASA’s humanoid space robot. The young company was one of a handful helping bring that system to life. It was a contribution to the liquid-cooled robotic actuators puzzle developed at the Human Centered Robotics Laboratory at the University of Texas, led by Luis Santis, co-founder and chief scientist at Aptronic.
Next was the exoskeleton. United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which was in the market for an “Iron Man suit”.
,[The]The exoskeleton was liquid-cooled,” Cardenas says. “We learned a lot while doing this. The complexity of the system was very high. It was heavy. We removed all the actuators. And then we started to realize what was the simplest version of a humanoid robot: a mobile manipulator. We were approached by a lot of people in logistics who did not want to pay for the manufacture of weapons. They were very accurate to what they wanted. What they wanted was an affordable robotic logistics arm.
Being in existence for almost 60 years, industrial weapons have been the tip of the spear far and wide. In that time, manufacturers such as Fanuc and Kuka have engineered millimeter accuracy. This is something that is essential for manufacturing and overkill for most logistics operations. Installing electrical systems in cars, for example, requires a lot more precision than simply moving the box from point A to point B.
“What a lot of people are doing in humanoid robots is basically trying to build them the same way we’ve built industrial robotic arms for a long time,” Cardenas says. “One of the key ideas for Aptronic is that we need to make these robots – when you have a 30-degree-of-freedom system – fundamentally different. The things we need are different. We We need them to be safe around humans, we need them to be highly robust to the environment around them. We need them to be highly energy efficient. This is a whole new set of constraints to which we are trying to adapt. taking the same architecture of all the arms you see there [at Automate] And extrapolating that doesn’t make sense. It’s a fundamentally different architecture where we have about a third fewer components per actuator, it takes about a third of the assembly time.
For a number of reasons, logistics is a logical place for a company like Apptronic to land. Not everyone wants to hold on to government contracts forever. Over the last several years, logistics/fulfillment has grown into itself the hottest category in the robotics space. Like countless other companies that have made the transition from research to the world of commercial products, the company has had to determine whether the right market exists for the technology it’s creating.
“The goal was to achieve the humanoid,” Cardenas says. “Humanoid is like the holy grail. When we started out probably the only thing that was consistent was, ‘Don’t do humanoids. They are very complex.’ ,
The true value of humanoid robots in the workplace is still an open question. But at least, Apptronic isn’t the only one asking so. Tesla’s much-publicized Optimus announcement loosened some. Suddenly companies operating in stealth mode were forced to announce their intentions. Startups like 1X and Figure have talked about their progress to varying degrees. Sanctuary AI, which has partnered with Apptronik Hardware, has already started operating the system.
Aptronic, for its part, has so far shown two parts of a robot. The humanoid robot’s upper body is Astra, which can be mounted on an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). At the other end is Draco, who is actually all legged. The company refers to this as its “first biplane” which is true – but that’s really all it is.
Part of our impromptu slideshow are videos of skinny legs walking around the Aptronic labs. It’s not clear what speed is achieved, but purely from the looks of it, it appears to be faster than what Tesla showed in its recent Optimus video. What becomes clear after looking at some of these seemingly disparate projects is that Aptronic has been building its own fully humanoid robot from scratch.
Cardenas says the company bootstrapped for most of its existence, until it laid off about 40-50 people. After the official unveiling of its full humanoid system this summer, it will seek Series A this year. “We have all these building blocks,” he continued. “A lot of it is iterating and trying out new ideas. The advantage of bootstrapping is that we’ve been believing in it for a long time. We’ve been at this for almost a decade as a team from Valkyrie.
At the moment, the company is working on getting the robot’s core functionality up and running before launch. It wants to clearly demonstrate that the product actually works as planned before showing it to the world. It’s a markedly different approach to what Tesla is doing with the Optimus, and if all goes according to plan, it will propel the firm to its next big upswing.
Cardenas showed me images — both renders and photos — of Apollo, the system it plans to launch this summer. I can’t share them here, but I can tell you that the design follows the kind of convergent evolution I’ve described, with Tesla, Figma and OpenAI-backed 1X renderers with a shared designed language. Let’s show Apollo looks – in a word – friendlier than any of these systems and the NASA Valkyrie robot that came before it.
It shares a lot of design traits with the Astra. In fact, I might even go as far as describing it as a cartoony beauty, with a head shaped like an old-school iMac, and a combination of button eyes and display face. While it’s true that most people won’t be interacting with these systems, which are designed to operate in places like warehouses and factory floors, it’s not necessary to embrace bad luck in order to look good.
In some ways, the general-purpose bit is tougher than the humanoid bit. This is not to say that building a fully mobile and articulated bipedal robot is easier than any stretch of the imagination, but there is a huge gulf between specialized and general purpose. The precise definition of the latter is a conversation for another day, but for many, the label describes a system that adapts entirely on the fly. For some, this means something like an API and app store for third-party developers to build skills, but the system still has to adapt to its environment. Ideally, it is a machine that can perform any task that a human can do.
Too often, people fail to recognize the vast middle ground of multi-purpose systems. For the time being, it is a far more practical place to operate within. Tesla’s notion of a robot that could work in a factory all day, do your grocery shopping and come home to cook you dinner feeds current outlandish expectations fueled by decades of science fiction .
“To get it to do that many things, it’s still early days,” Cardenas says, “but there are enough applications where if we can do simple things like move a box from point A to point B, thousands of units.” are” worth the demands for those applications.
Like all work in space, these conversations require the caveat that we are still in very early stages. Agility has arguably come to the forefront of proving the efficacy of humanoid (or at the very least bipedal) robots in the warehouse setting. But they too have a long way to go.
Regardless, the next few years will provide some fascinating insights into where these culminations of decades of research are heading.