Sanctuary AI secures IP assets to advance touch, grasping in general-purpose robots

Sanctuary asserts that robotic manipulation including tactile sensing is critical to the success of humanoids. | Credit: Sanctuary AI

Sanctuary AI, which is developing general-purpose humanoid robots, has announced the recent acquisition of intellectual property, or IP, adding to its asset portfolio of touch and grasping technologies.

The Vancouver, Canada-based company said it expects this IP to play a pivotal role in its ambitious roadmap for the construction of general-purpose robots. According to Sanctuary AI, the integration of vision systems and touch sensors, which offer tactile feedback, plays a pivotal role in the realization of embodied artificial general intelligence (AGI).

It has already secured patents for numerous technologies developed both internally and through strategic acquisitions from external sources. The company acquired the latest assets from Giant.AI Inc. and Tangible Research.

Sanctuary AI is one of several robotics companies developing humanoid robots. The company unveiled the Phoenix humanoid robot in May 2023, when it publicly demonstrated its sixth-generation unit. This was also the first generation of humanoids from Sanctuary to feature bipedal locomotion.

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Sanctuary AI takes touch-oriented approach

Unlike its competitors, Sanctuary AI said it has taken a different approach by starting with an intense investment in grasping capabilities combined with hand-eye coordination of human-analog hands and arms. 

Geordie Rose, co-founder and CEO of Sanctuary, was one of three executives from humanoid robotics companies to speak at RoboBusiness 2023’s keynote on the “State of Humanoid Robotics Development.” He described the importance of humanoids being able to do real work by manipulating any object that they might encounter.

This philosophy is a cornerstone to Sanctuary’s development roadmap, and Rose said it is essential to the success of humanoid robots in the future. It is also key to the company’s acquisition plan.

Grasping is a cornerstone in Sanctuary’s product development roadmap, as shown here in this screenshot from a recent Sanctuary USPTO patent. | Credit: USPTO

Surveying the landscape on the way to AGI

Rose told The Robot Report that he believes that “the humanoid competitive landscape is bisecting into two general theses:”

Single-purpose bipedal robots to move totes and boxes in retail, warehousing, and logistics
General-purpose robots developing generalized software control systems for robots with hands that can act across multiple use cases and industries

Bipedal robots that can walk on two legs have been around for several decades, yet no significant supplier has matured or commercialized the technology despite having the necessary resources, Rose said, citing Honda, Boston Dynamics, and Toyota as examples.

Rose added that the “technology gap” for general-purpose humanoids is related to dexterous manipulation and grasping, which his company is developing and for which it has obtained patents. 

“Replicating human-like touch is potentially more important than vision when it comes to grasping and manipulation in unstructured environments,” said Jeremy Fishel, principal researcher at Sanctuary AI and founder of Tangible Research. “It has been an effort many years in the making to meet the complex blend of performance, features, and durability to achieve general-purpose dexterity.”

Sanctuary claimed that the best way to build the world’s first AGI is to build software for controlling sophisticated robots with humanlike senses (vision, hearing, proprioception, and touch), actions (movement, speech), and goals (completing work tasks).

RoboBusiness 2023 featured a keynote panel with speakers from three leading humanoid manufacturers. Seated left to right: moderator Mike Oitzman | Jonathan Hurst, chief robot officer of Agility Robotics | Geordie Rose, CEO of Sanctuary | Nick Paine, CTO of Apptronik.

IP portfolio around grasping grows

Sanctuary AI’s new IP assets expand on a growing patent portfolio that already protects several key grasping technologies for both non-humanoid and humanoid robots, including visual servoing, real-time simulation of the grasping process, and mapping between visual and haptic data. All of these are key to enabling any robot that must interact with and manipulate objects in unstructured or dynamic environments.

“In dynamic and unstructured environments, coordination between touch and vision is an absolute necessity,” said Rose. “We spent over a year performing industry-wide analysis before acquiring Jeremy’s team. Beyond the functional sensitivity, the technology is designed to be simulateable, enabling us to fast-track our AI model development.” 

According to Rose, “Sanctuary AI is focused on creating the world’s first human-like intelligence in general-purpose robots that will help address the massive labor shortages that organizations are facing around the world. This is a civilization-scale initiative that requires long-term planning and prioritization.”

“Our strategy is unique in that the prioritized focus is on the highest value part of the value chain, which is our clear focus on hand dexterity, fine manipulation, and touch,” he noted. “We believe hands, or more specifically grasping and manipulation, are the key pathway to applying real-world AI to the labor market, given that more than 98% of all work requires the dexterity of the human hand.”

“The acquisition of Tangible Research, the purchase of Giant.AI’s entire patent portfolio, along with our own independent activity, further deepens our IP and expertise in this critical area,” Rose explained.

The Phoenix humanoid robot has taken a deliberate and careful path to market, based on an IP portfolio to support Sanctuary’s product roadmap. | Credit: USPTO

Sanctuary AI patents show multi-purpose robot progress

You can learn a lot about a company’s technical trajectory by looking closely at its IP portfolio. Sanctuary AI’s patents from the past few years include “software-compensated robotics” (USPTO US 11312012 B2), which uses recurrent neural networks and image processing to control the operation and/or movement of an end effector.

A patent for “systems, devices, and methods for grasping by multi-purpose robots” (USPTO 11717963 B2) describes the training and operation of semi-autonomous robots to complete different work objectives.

Finally, the most cryptic of this group of patents is “haptic photogrammetry In robots and methods for operating the same” (USPTO US 11717974 B1), which describes methods for operating robots based on environment models including haptic data.

The market for humanoids has made notable progress in 2023, with plenty of product announcements. Agility Robotics offers one of the most mature systems on the market and has announced publicly that it is testing its robots in both Amazon warehouses and at GXO Logistics.

You can see Phoenix do things like placing items in a plastic bag, stacking blocks, and more as part of Sanctuary AI’s “Robots Doing Stuff” series on its YouTube channel.

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