Back in January, Apptronik said it was working on a new commercial general-purpose humanoid robot called Apollo. I say “new” because over the past seven or eight years Apptronik has developed more than half a dozen humanoid robots along with a couple of full-body exoskeletons. But as the company told us earlier this year, it has decided that now is absolutely definitely for sure the time for bipedal humanoids to go commercial.
Today, Apptronik is unveiling Apollo. It says the robot is “designed to transform the industrial workforce and beyond in service of improving the human experience.” It will first be used in logistics and manufacturing, but Apptronik promises “endless potential applications long term.” Still, the company must make it happen: It’s a big step from a prototype to a commercial product.
The biped that we saw in January was a prototype for Apollo, but today Apptronik is showing an alpha version of the real thing. The robot is roughly human-sized, standing 1.7 meters tall and weighing 73 kilograms, with a maximum payload of 25 kg. It can run for about four hours on a swappable battery. The company has two of these robots right now, and it is building four more.
While Apptronik is initially focused on case and tote handling solutions in the logistics and manufacturing industries, Apollo is a general-purpose robot that is designed to work in the real world where development partners will extend Apollo’s solutions far beyond logistics and manufacturing eventually extending into construction, oil and gas, electronics production, retail, home delivery, elder care and countless more. Apollo is the “iPhone” of robots, enabling development partners to expand on Apptronik developed solutions and extend the digital world into the physical world to work alongside people and do the jobs that they don’t want to do.
I’m generally not a huge fan of the “iPhone of robots” analogy, primarily because the iPhone was cost-effective and widely desirable as a multipurpose tool even before developers really got involved with it. Historically, robots have not been successful in this way. It’ll take some time to learn whether Apollo will be able to demonstrate that out-of-the-box versatility, but my guess is that the initial success of Apollo (as with basically every other robot) will depend primarily on what practical applications Apptronik itself will be able to set it up for. Maybe at some point humanoids will be so affordable and easy to use that there will be an open-ended developer market, but we’re nowhere close to that yet.
Pretty much all the humanoid robots entering the market are meant for case and tote handling, and for good reason: The jobs are dull and physically taxing and there aren’t enough people willing to do them. There’s plenty of room for robots like Apollo, provided the cost isn’t47 too high.
How are you going to make Apollo affordable?
Jeff Cardenas: This isn’t our first humanoid that we’ve built—we’ve done about eight. The approach that we took with our robots early on was to just build the best thing we could, and worry about getting the cost down later. But we would hit a wall each time. A big focus with Apollo was to not do that again. We had to start thinking about cost from the very beginning, and we needed to make sure that the first alpha unit that we build is as close to the gamma unit as possible. A lot of people will waive a wand and say, “there’s going to be millions of humanoids one day, so things like harmonic drives are going to become much cheaper at scale.” But when you actually quote components at really high volumes, you don’t get the price break you think you’ll get. The electronics—the motor drivers with the actuators—60 percent or more of the cost of the system is there.
Nick Paine: We are trying to think about Apollo from a long-term perspective. We wanted to avoid the situation where we’d build a robot just to show that we could do something, but then have to figure out how to swap out expensive high-precision parts for something else while presenting our controls team with an entirely new problem as well.
So the focus is on Apollo’s actuators?
Paine: Apptronik is a little unique in that we’ve built up actuation experience through a range of projects that we’ve worked on—I think we’ve designed around 13 complete systems, so we’ve experienced the full gamut of what type of actuation architectures work well for what scenarios and what applications. Apollo is really a culmination of all that knowledge gathered over many years of iterative learning, optimized for the humanoid use case, and being very intentional about what properties from a first-principles standpoint that we wanted to have at each joint of the robot. That resulted in a combination of linear and rotary actuators throughout the system.
Cardenas: What we’re targeting is affordability, and part of how we get there is with our actuation approach. The new actuators we’re using have about a third fewer components than our previous actuators. They also take about a third of the assembly time. Long term, our road map is really focused around supply chain: how do we get away from single-source vendors and start to leverage components that are much more readily available? We think that’s going to be important for cost and scaling the systems long term.
Can you share some technical details on the actuators?
Paine: Folks can look at the patents when they come out, but I would chalk it up to our teams’ first-principles design experience, and past history of system-level integration.
But it’s not like you have some magical new actuator technology?
Cardenas: We’re not relying on fundamental breakthroughs to reach this threshold of performance. We need to get our robots out into the world, and we’re able to leverage technologies that already exist. And with our experience and a systems sort of thinking we’re putting it together in a novel way.
What does “affordable” mean in the context of a robot like Apollo?
Cardenas: I think long term, a humanoid needs to cost less than US $50,000. They should be comparable to the price of many cars.
Paine: I think actually we could be significantly cheaper than cars based on the assumption that at scale, the cost of a product typically approaches the cost of its constituent materials. Cars weigh about 1800 kilograms, and our robot weighs 70 kilograms. That’s 25 times less raw materials. And as Jeff said, we already have a path and a supply chain for very cost effective actuators. I think that’s a really interesting analysis to think about, and we’re excited to see where it goes.
Some of the videos show Apollo with a five-fingered hand. What’s your perspective on end effectors?
Cardenas: We think that long term, hands will be important for humanoids, although they won’t necessarily have to be five-fingered hands. The end effector is modular. For first applications when we’re picking boxes, we don’t need a five-finger hand for that. And so we’re going to simplify the problem and deploy with a simpler end effector.
Paine: I feel like some folks are trying to do hands because they think it’s cool, or because it shows that their team is capable. The way that I think about it is, humanoids are hard enough as they are—there are a lot of challenges and complexities to figure out. We are a very pragmatic team from an engineering standpoint, and we are very careful about choosing our battles, putting our resources where they’re most valuable. And so for the alpha version of Apollo, we have a modular interface with the wrist. We are not solving the generic five-finger fine dexterity and manipulation problem. But we do think that long term, the best versatile end effector is a hand.
These initial applications that you’re targeting with Apollo don’t seem to be leveraging its bipedal mobility. Why have a robot with legs at all?
Cardenas: One of the things that we’ve learned about legs is that they address the need for reaching the ground and reaching up high. If you try to solve that problem with wheels, then you end up with a really big base, because it has to be statically stable. The customers that we’re working with are really interested in this idea of retrofitability. They don’t want to have to make workspace changes. The workstations are really narrow—they’re designed around the human form, and so we think legs are going to be the way to get there.
Legs are an elegant solution to achieving a lightweight system that can operate at large vertical workspaces in small footprints. —Nick Paine, Apptronik CTO
Can Apollo safely fall over and get back up?
Paine: A very important requirement is that Apollo needs to be able to fall over and not break, and that drives some key actuation requirements. One of the unique things with Apollo is that not only is it well suited for OSHA-level manipulation of payloads, but it’s also well suited for robustly handling impacts with the environment. And from a maintenance standpoint, two bolts is all you need to remove to swap out an actuator.
Cardenas says that Apptronik has more than ten pilots planned with case picking as the initial application. The rest of this year will be focused on in-house demonstrations with the Apollo alpha units, with field pilots planned for next year with production robots. Full commercial release is planned for the end of 2024. It’s certainly an aggressive timeline, but Apptronik is confident in its approach. “The beauty of robotics is in showing versus telling,” Cardenas says. “That’s what we’re trying to do with this launch.”