Amazon’s Digit Pilot: A Landmark Experiment for Humanoid Robots

Photo by Amazon

Amazon’s announcement at the recent “Delivering the Future” event in Seattle has sparked widespread interest in robotics. The retail giant revealed it will begin testing ., a humanoid robot in a move that could eventually bring this bipedal machine to Amazon’s nationwide fulfillment centers. Although this represents a nascent stage in the partnership with Agility and doesn’t necessarily indicate a larger plan, it showcases Amazon’s interest in exploring the potential of humanoid robots.

Agility’s previous experience with Ford, where they explored last-mile delivery as a potential application and later shifted Digit’s focus primarily to warehouse and factory work, provides an exciting backdrop to this collaboration. Amazon’s decision to test Digit follows its inclusion of Agility as one of the first five beneficiaries of its $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund. Being part of this fund does not guarantee that Amazon will adopt the technology, but it unmistakably signals Amazon’s curiosity about its potential.

“We’re world leaders when it comes to mobile robots. And now we are very much in the business of manipulating not only packages but also objects. And to bring them together, it’s exciting to see all the possibilities.” – Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics Chief Technologist.

The Potential of Humanoid Robots

During an interview, Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics’ chief technologist, conveyed that the Innovation Fund aims to explore possibilities in the robotics sphere. He noted that while Amazon Robotics has mainly dealt with wheeled locomotion, the concept of legged robots holds considerable potential. Brady expressed intrigue in the capabilities of walking robots, especially their ability to move on diverse terrains, and showed interest in exploring the pros and cons of their humanoid form.

Amazon’s focus on Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) dates back to its 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems. The platforms developed by Kiva Systems now form the basis of Amazon Robotics, with around 750,000 AMRs deployed across Amazon’s warehouse network. The company has also introduced non-AMR systems, including picking arms like Sparrow.

Amazon’s Impact on Industrial Robotics

Amazon’s efforts in robotics have radically influenced the rest of the industrial robotics space. It has catalyzed the push for automation among competitors, striving to meet growing customer expectations for same- and next-day deliveries. Furthermore, Amazon’s decision to halt support for Kiva customers outside the Amazon ecosystem led to the formation of prominent industry names such as Locus Robotics and 6 River Systems.

For Amazon to incorporate a system into its expanding robotics ecosystem, it must demonstrably increase productivity. The company is not merely chasing innovation for its own sake. Still, it is actively seeking any advantage that could expedite the delivery of goods to customers, even considering drones as a potential means.

The Future of Humanoid Robots

How humanoid and bipedal robots might fit into Amazon’s grand scheme is yet to be determined. A significant challenge is that any new system must be capable of matching Amazon’s immense scale. Several startups, including 1X, Figure, and Tesla, compete in the humanoid robotics crown race. Agility’s Digit, although less human-looking, is ahead of the pack with substantial funding and a head start. The company recently established a new factory in Salem, Oregon, which can purportedly produce up to 100,000 Digits annually once fully operational.

Despite the excitement surrounding the category, the real test lies in validating these robots at scale. The success or failure of Digit in accomplishing its assigned tasks could significantly influence the future path of humanoid robots. If Amazon successfully deploys Digit at scale, there could be a sudden surge in demand for humanoid workers.

One of the critical advantages of humanoid robots is that they are designed to work in environments created by humans for humans. This includes shelving heights, aisle width, and staircase designs. From this perspective, humanoid robots are logical additions to existing workspaces, especially brownfield sites that need to be built with specific automation solutions in mind.

Amazon’s Future Plans

Brady clarified that Digit is not the total of Amazon’s plans for mobile manipulation. Combining sensing, computing, and actuation technologies could create unique possibilities. Amazon’s expertise in building both AMRs and robotic arms could lead to the development of mobile manipulation systems. Brady expressed interest in the Agility robot, considering it a mobile manipulator. The company is also open to integrating identification, manipulation, and sortation systems to innovate for its customers and enhance employee safety.

Even if the Digit experiment doesn’t yield the expected results, it doesn’t spell the end for bipedal robots. The failure could be due to a misalignment with Amazon’s workflows; the robot might need more time to prepare for Amazon’s scale, or vice versa. Regardless of the outcome, this pilot is significant in developing bipedal robots and will influence future perceptions of the category.