General Purpose Robots Impossible? Apptronik says no, gets new partnership with NASA • CableFree TV

Published by
Peter Kavinsky

Robotics has made great strides even just in the last five years. But despite significant advances in core technologies such as sensors and computing, many of the robots that inhabit industries such as manufacturing are considered “ad hoc”: they are designed to perform a limited number of tasks in a stable, predictable environment. It is often possible to meet the opinion that, no matter how leaps and bounds robotics develops, a general purpose robot (GPR) one that can perform a range of tasks in an undefined environment still just a pipe dream.

in Austin Apptronic disagree. The company has already developed an upper-body humanoid robot called Astra, which it says is ground-penetrating radar that can perform tasks such as storage, packaging and other functions common in industrial settings. Now Apptronik is gearing up to commercialize another robot, which it says is also ground penetrating radar, designed for heavier payloads and more critical industries, including aerospace, logistics and retail. Apptronik is calling this second humanoid “Apollo,” and the company recently secured a new contract with NASA to bring it to market next year.

One might wonder why we don’t just put AI in an excavator or any other type of robot. after all, we’re designing autonomous vehicles, not robots that are very, very good at driving. But Apptronic co-founder and CEO Jeff Cardenas says there’s room for both. He added that human-shaped robots are best suited to work in an environment designed for humans and use the same tools as humans.

“Traditional robots are really designed to perform very repetitive actions in structured environments,” Cardenas said. “What we’ve been really focused on is how do we build robots that can operate in highly variable dynamic environments? With a humanoid robot, really, how can we build a robot built by people for people to work in places meant for people?”

He, CTO and co-founder Nick Payne compared ground penetrating radars to smartphones that have a range of features. In this case, Apollo is a hardware and software platform that can perform different tasks or create different applications. Its working organs will be interchangeable, so it can have humanoid arms, as well as grips, pinschers, or other manipulators. According to Apptronik, he will be able to move at about the same speed as a person.

“We’re building a platform,” Payne explained. “You don’t need M/L frameworks to build iPhone apps, you need a scalable hardware platform that can handle a wide range of tasks.”

Cardenas said that while this is just the beginning, we are moving from an old world populated entirely by special-purpose robots to a new world of ground-penetrating radar: robots that can even learn, mimic and improve their tasks the longer they take them, capabilities that , according to Apptronik, are planned over time. The level of abstraction will also rise; Initially, Apollo will be controlled through a user interface on a smartphone or computer, and the customer will need to be clear about what they want from Apollo. But the end goal is to be able to give Apollo high-level tasks that he can solve on his own.

Cardenas said that while there will still be room for special-purpose robots, we are approaching the next phase of robotics that science fiction promised.

Robot Astra. Image credits: Apptronic (Opens in a new window)

GPR for Earth and Beyond

The company’s relationship with NASA dates back to 2013, when the team participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge and was selected to work on a robot named Valkyrie. At that point, Apptronik was still part of the Human-Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Texas at Austin (it spun off from the lab in 2016). This team included Payne and Luis Sentis, who also founded the company and now act as scientific advisor.

“You can really think of Apptronik as a commercialization of all the work done at NASA with DARPA,” Cardenas said.

Apollo is an apt name for a NASA-backed robot. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the twin brother of Artemis; and Artemis is the name NASA has chosen for its overly ambitious multi-year plan to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon. As the partnership with NASA shows, the company is thinking about how ground penetrating radar can benefit people in space. on the moon or even on Mars. In addition, having robots that can walk and fit into the same inner zone as a human could be very handy for settling on Mars, Cardenas said.

Even before Apollo reaches space, Apptronik is eyeing ground-based applications in hopes of selling the robot to companies in major industries. The company, which raised $14.6 million in seed funding earlier this summer in part to fund this commercialization effort, hopes to showcase the robot at South by Southwest next year.

The company has about 62 full-time employees and has been hiring since the seed round closed. So far, nothing has been said about the pricing of the Apollo robot, but Cardenas said that by repeating dozens of unique actuators one of the most expensive parts of the system they were able to make them more accessible. The ultimate goal is to deliver a million robots by 2030.

“A lot of people are skeptical about this technology,” Cardenas said. “[They say,] ‘This is true? It’s here?’ We believe that the partnership with NASA, a legendary group that is known for their technology and really pushes things forward, really shows a game changer in robotics. The time has come and we are in this new phase of robotics where we can now create new types of systems that many people have been waiting for a long time.”

Peter Kavinsky

Peter Kavinsky is the Executive Editor at

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