Amazon’s Trial of Agility’s Digit: A Potential Game-Changer for Humanoid Robots

In a recent announcement at the Delivering the Future event in Seattle, Amazon disclosed its plans to initiate testing of Agility’s Digit robot. This move holds significant implications for the robotics industry and, if successful, could mark a milestone in the deployment of bipedal robots within Amazon’s nationwide fulfillment centers. While it’s early days for such endeavors, these initial trials could pave the way for something more substantial in the future.

To grasp the significance of this development, it’s worthwhile to look at Agility’s previous foray into last-mile delivery with Ford, which eventually shifted its focus to warehouse and factory applications. In a show of interest and support, Amazon included Agility among the first recipients of its $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund. While this doesn’t guarantee Amazon’s full-scale adoption of Agility’s technology, it certainly hints at their interest in its potential.

Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics Chief Technologist, sheds light on the company’s exploratory approach with the Innovation Fund. He emphasizes the desire to understand real-world applications and is intrigued by the possibilities that legged locomotion offers. He acknowledges that the humanoid form is a subject of interest and experimentation.

Since its acquisition of Kiva Systems in 2012, Amazon has been heavily invested in wheeled Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). The company currently operates 750,000 AMRs within its warehouses. While these systems have dramatically influenced the industrial robotics sector, Amazon’s relentless pursuit of automation has not been limited to wheels. The introduction of non-AMR systems like Sparrow, a picking arm, showcases Amazon’s quest for innovation in various areas.

Amazon’s adoption of new systems hinges on their potential to enhance productivity and expedite order fulfillment. It’s not just about innovating for the sake of it but about seeking advantages that facilitate faster deliveries. Amazon’s interest in humanoid robots and bipedal machines presents a unique challenge due to the sheer scale at which the company operates.

Several startups, such as 1X, Figure, and Tesla, are competing to pioneer humanoid robotics. Agility’s Digit, while less human-like in appearance, stands out with substantial funding and a head start. The company’s new factory in Oregon, designed to produce up to 100,000 Digits annually, underscores the growing excitement surrounding humanoid robots. Nevertheless, proving the effectiveness of such robots at scale remains a formidable challenge, and the success or failure of Digit in Amazon’s trials could significantly influence the trajectory of humanoid robots in the industry.

One key consideration is that humans design workplaces for other humans. This includes factors like shelving heights, terrain, aisle width, and staircases, which can pose challenges for traditional robots. Humanoid robots offer the advantage of adapting to these brownfield sites commonly found in warehouses and factories. While Amazon has the means to create custom facilities, seamless integration into existing workflows remains an ideal scenario.

Brady reveals that Digit is not the sole focus of Amazon’s mobile manipulation plans. The company is exploring the combination of sensing, computation, and actuation to create innovative solutions. This could involve mounting robot arms on AMRs, opening doors to a variety of applications. Amazon aims to innovate for the benefit of customers and improve employee safety, and they’re diligently working on the core fundamentals to make it happen.

If, for any reason, Digit doesn’t meet expectations, it won’t spell the end for bipedal robots. Amazon’s decision could be driven by their existing operational needs, the readiness of the technology, or other factors. Regardless, this development is a wake-up call for anyone with an interest in humanoid robots. The trials have the potential to reshape the future of this category significantly.