Jeff Cardenas draws his MacBook off. Apptronik’s co-founder and CEO has a slideshow he wants to show that shows the startup’s seven-year history in Austin. It does indeed require a bit of contextualization. Like many fellow robotics companies, the company was fueled by government contracts in its early days.
The first was Valkyrie 2, the second iteration of NASA’s humanoid space robot. The fledgling company was one of the few to help bring that system to life. Contributing to the puzzle were liquid-cooled robotic actuators being developed in the Human Centered Robots lab at the University of Texas, led by Apptronik co-founder and chief scientist Luis Sentis.
Next was exoskeletons. United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which marketed for “iron man suits.”
“(The) exoskeleton was liquid-cooled,” says Cardenas. “We learned a lot from that. The complexity of the system was too great. It was heavy. We have remoted all actuators. And then we started to realize what the simplest version of a humanoid robot was: a mobile manipulator. We were approached by many people in logistics who did not want to pay for making weapons. They were too precise for what they needed. What they wanted was an affordable logistics robotic arm.”
Industrial weapons have been by far the cutting edge of the spear and have been around for about 60 years. During that time, manufacturers such as Fanuc and Kuka developed millimeter accuracy. That is essential for production and overkill for most logistics work. Installing electrical systems in cars, for example, requires much more precision than moving a box from point a to point b.
“What a lot of people are doing in humanoid robots is basically trying to build them the same way we’ve been building industrial robotic arms for a long time,” says Cardenas. “One of the main ideas for Apptronik is that the way we should build these robots – when you have a system with 30 degrees of freedom – is fundamentally different. The things we need are different. We need them to be safe around people we need them to be very robust to the environment they’re in. We need them to be very power efficient it’s a new set of constraints that we’re trying to optimize for the same architectures take from all arms that you see there (at Automate) and that extrapolation makes no sense. This is a fundamentally different architecture where we have about a third fewer components per actuator, it takes about a third of the assembly time.”
Logistics is a logical location for a company like Apptronik for a number of reasons. Not everyone wants to be supported by government contracts forever. In recent years, logistics/fulfillment has become the hottest category in the robotics space. Like countless other companies that have moved from research to the world of commercial products, the company had to determine whether the right market position existed for the technology it was creating.
“The goal was to get to the hominid,” says Cardenas. “The humanoid is a kind of holy grail. The only thing that was probably consistent when we started was, ‘Don’t do humanoids. They’re too complicated.’ ”
The true value of humanoid robots in the workplace is still an open question. But Apptronik is certainly not the only one asking. Tesla’s highly publicized Optimus announcement shook things up. Suddenly, the companies operating in stealth mode felt compelled to reveal their own intentions. Startups like 1X and Figure have discussed their progress to varying degrees. Sanctuary AI, which works in tandem with Apptronik hardware, has already started controlling systems.
Apptronik for its part has so far shown two halves of a robot. There’s Astra, the upper body of a humanoid robot, which can be mounted on an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). On the other side is Draco, which is literally all legs. The company calls it its “first biped,” which is true – but that’s really all there is to it.
Part of our impromptu slideshow are videos of the slender legs walking through the Apptronik labs. It hasn’t reached Cassie speeds from the looks of things, but if you look at it purely, the gait seems faster than what Tesla showed in its recent Optimus videos. What becomes clear after looking at a handful of these seemingly disparate projects is that Apptronik has built its own full humanoid robot from scratch, one by one.
Cardenas says the company bootstrapped for much of its existence, until it reached about 40-50 people. It will explore a Series A this year, following the official unveiling of its full humanoid system this summer. “We have all these building blocks,” he adds. “A lot of it was iterating and trying new ideas. The advantage of bootstrapping is that we have believed in this for a long time. We’ve been working on this as a team for about ten years now, from Valkyrie.
Right now, the company is working on running and building out the robot’s core functionality ahead of launch. It understandably wants to demonstrate that the product actually functions as planned before showing it to the world. It’s a markedly different approach to what Tesla has been doing with Optimus, and if all goes according to plan, it will propel the company to its next big raise.
Cardenas shows me images—both renders and photos—of Apollo, the system that plans to make its debut this summer. I can’t share them here, but I can tell you that the design found the sort of convergent evolution I’ve described, with Tesla, Figure, and OpenAI-assisted 1X showing views with a shared designed language. Apollo – in a word – looks friendlier than any of these systems and the NASA Valkyrie robot that preceded it.
It shares many more design qualities with Astra. I could even go so far as to describe it as a cartoonish aesthetic, with a head shaped like an old-fashioned iMac, and a combination of button eyes and display making up the face. While it’s true that most people don’t interact with these systems, which are designed to work in places like warehouses and factory floors, it’s not necessary to embrace ominous things to look cool.
In some ways, the general part is more difficult than the humanoid part. That’s not to say that building a fully mobile and articulated bipedal robot is easy, but there’s a big gap between special and general purpose. The precise definition of the latter is a conversation for another day, but for many, the label describes a system that is completely customizable. For some, that means something like an API and app store for third-party developers to create skills, but the systems still need to adapt to their environment. Ideally, it is a machine that can perform any task that a human can.
Too often people fail to recognize the huge middle ground that multifunction systems are. For now, this is a much more pragmatic place to operate in. The Tesla idea of a robot that can work all day in the factory, run errands, and come home to cook dinner for you answers existing outlandish expectations fueled by decades of science fiction.
“To get it to do multiple things,” says Cardenas, “it’s still early days, but there are plenty of applications where if we can do simple things like move a box from point a to point b, there are tens of thousands of units ‘ requirements for those applications.”
As with all space work, these conversations require the caveat that we are still in the very early stages. Agility has arguably gone furthest in proving the effectiveness of a humanoid (or at least bipedal) robot in a warehouse environment. But even they still have a long way to go.
Either way, the next few years will offer a fascinating insight into where these culminations of decades of research are headed.