By Bobby Carlton
During the ProMat 2023 conference in Chicago, Agility Robotics showcased their next generation of Digit, a humanoid robot who is designed to perform typical tasks, which are often found in distribution centers and warehouses, that might seem mundane or even dangerous.
With the help of robots like Digit, human workers will no longer have to undertake dangerous jobs or complete repetitive tasks. Instead, companies and industries will be able to process orders faster with the flexibility to scale as your business grows and your needs change. Labor can be reallocated, creating new opportunities for human workers.
For Agility Robotics, their next generation of Digit is designed to work shoulder-to-shoulder with human workers. Digit stands about 5 feet tall and weighs 140 pounds, so it's not big and bulky. It features new end effectors that are designed to improve the efficiency of its tasks, such as reaching high/low, pulling, picking up, and placing objects commonly found in e-commerce and shipping warehouses.
Thanks to built in sensors and cameras, Digit has the ability to navigate around humans and a work area in a way that won't put humans in danger or crash into objects on the floor.
One thing that the robot design team focused on was giving Digit more humanoid features. For example, facial expressions are an important part of how humans communicate.
Research evidence states that people can use seven universal expressions across multiple cultures. These expressions are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. They can be used across a wide array of contexts, including face-to-face conversations, sign language and computer-mediated conversations (through video calls or the use of emoticons).
To bring that part of non-verbal communication into their robot, Ability Robotics gave Digit LED eyes that allow it to interact with humans more easily through digital expressions. This means Digit can utilize eye movement and even body language to identify its direction when it's about to turn or can use expression to help its human colleagues during the workday.
“Three years ago, we introduced the first commercially available bipedal robot with a human form factor made for work. Since then, we have seen enormous interest in Digit from multinational logistics companies, and have worked closely with them to understand how they want to use Digit to improve warehouse and supply chain operations. We designed the next generation of Digit with those customer use cases in mind,” said Damion Shelton, co-founder and CEO of Agility Robotics.
Jonathan Hurst, the CTO of Agility Robotics, who is also a professor at Oregon State University's College of Engineering and led the development of the ATRIAS, a robot that was able to reproduce the walking gait characteristics of humans said, “We’ve learned so much about how robots can partner with the human workforce and work naturally in human environments, and we can’t wait to see the positive impact that the new Digit will have in the world,” adding, “When people and robots work together in logistics operations, working conditions improve for people, warehouse efficiency improves overall, the supply chain moves more smoothly – everybody wins.”
Due to the effects of the pandemic, the demand for skilled workers in the warehouse has increased significantly. As a result, many companies are now turning to automation to help mitigate the effects of the future disruptions. According to Shelton, Digit is the “future of work” due to its ability to improve the working conditions of the people in the supply chain.
“We look forward to Digit augmenting workforces, taking on the ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous’ tasks, and allowing people to focus on more creative and complex work. We like to think of Digit as enabling humans to be more human.”
It has been incredibly challenging to build a human-centric robot that can perform tasks reliably, such as walking and balancing. However, several companies believe that the technologies have improved enough in the last 10 years to allow the development of general-purpose robots.
Tesla is one of the most prominent companies in the field of developing human-like robots. The company has showcased a real-life version of its model, while a startup known as Figure has only shown concept images. Another company known as Apptronik is also working on a human-like robot.
Boston Dynamics' Atlas is regarded as the most impressive human-like robot ever built. Although it has been shown in real life, the company has maintained that its development is focused on improving its capabilities for R&D. In a video showcasing Atlas’ working skills, the company noted that it is still far from being able to perform dangerous and dirty jobs in the workplace.
The purpose of robots in the workforce isn't to take away jobs from people, but to instead use robot partners to augment the human workforce and have robots as tools we use to make our jobs easier, safer and more efficient.
You can expect to see a rollout of Digit in 2025. To learn more, check out the Agility Robotics website by clicking here.