Drives & Controls April 2024

NEWS n 5 Mercedes and BMW explore using humanoid robots in their plants MERCEDES-BENZ AND BMW have announced plans to start testing humanoid robots for possible deployment in their production plants. Mercedes-Benz is exploring using humanoid robots supplied by the US manufacturer Apptronik to carry parts to production lines for workers to assemble, and to inspect the components at the same time. And BMW is planning to use humanoid robots from the Californian developer Figure AI to perform unspeci€ed tasks at a plant in the US. These are two a series of developments in recent months that suggest that humanoid robots are starting to migrate from laboratories and YouTube videos to real-world applications in factories in warehouses. In one sign of the rapid pace of developments in this area, researchers at the US bank Goldman Sachs are predicting that the global market for humanoids could be worth $38bn by 2035 – six times larger than they were forecasting just a year ago – with 1.4 million of the machines being shipped annually by then. The researchers are basing their dramatically revised predictions on a combination of plummeting costs, soaring investment in the sector, and the enhanced capabilities that AI is bringing to bipedal robots. The researchers suggest that humanoid robots could achieve two-year paybacks as soon as 2025-2026. (For more on the report, see page 26.) Another powerful indicator is a series of recent announcements by the chip-maker Nvidia of software and hardware developments aimed at accelerating the development of humanoid robots. The company’s founder and CEO, Jensen Huang, last month described the development of models for humanoid robots as being“one of the most exciting problems to solve in AI today”. (See more on Nvidia’s plans on page 18.) Then there is the news that Figure AI, founded in 2022, has raised $675m of backing from investors including Amazon boss, Jež Bezos, Nvidia, Microsoft and OpenAI. The company, which is currently valued at $2.6bn, will use the money to accelerate the development of its AI-powered humanoid robot, Figure 01, which is aimed at commercial applications. A recent video shows it interacting with a human using normal-sounding spoken English. In China, a government report last year identi€ed humanoid robots as being a critical technology with a potential for disrupting industry. It called for the establishment of industry clusters specialising in humanoids by 2025, with stable industry chains to integrate humanoid robots into the Chinese economy by 2027. It estimated that China’s humanoid robot market could be worth 870 billion yuan (£96bn) by 2030. In other developments: nTesla is developing its own humanoid robot, called Optimus, which can sort objects autonomously and self-calibrate its arms and legs. A recent recruitment drive suggests that Tesla may be preparing to test the robots in its factories. n The Chinese car-maker Nio is already testing humanoid robots from UBTech Robotics on an assembly line at one of its factories. The 77kg Walker X robots, which have 41 servo joints, use real-time image-capturing capabilities to perform quality inspections. n Another Chinese car-maker, Xpeng Motors, is developing its own humanoid robots which it plans to introduce to its factories later this year. One goal is for the company’s PX5 robot to be able to walk 10km while carrying a load. nBoston Robotics has released a video showing its Atlas humanoid robot picking and placing automotive struts. The company is now owned by the Korean carmaker Hyundai, so the robots could €nd their way into its plants. n Oregon-based Agility Robotics, which is developing humanoid robots for warehouse applications, is involved in trials with Amazon and the world’s largest contract logistics provider, GXO Logistics. Amazon is testing Agility’s Digit robot at its robotics R&D facility for tasks such as tote recycling – picking and moving empty totes. GXO is testing the 16kg-capacity robots for roles such as moving totes from AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) to conveyors. n One Chinese humanoid developer, Leju Robot, reckons that the cost of its machines could fall from 600,000 yuan (£63,000) at present to 150,000 yuan (£16,580) by the end of 2025. In their report, the Goldman Sachs researchers identify and compare nine humanoid robots being developed by companies and organisations outside China – and a further ten in China alone. April 2024 Mercedes-Benz is testing the potential of Apptronik’s Apollo humanoid robot to carry parts to assembly lines, at the same time as inspecting their quality SPRINT ELECTRIC, the UK drives developer, has won funding of around £300,00 from Innovate UK to support the development of larger versions of its “groundbreaking” Generis AC regenerative drive. The €rst 22kW models are now ready to go on sale and the funding – from the €fth round of Innovate UK’s Investor Partnerships programme which backs SMEs – will support the development of the Generis range up to 250kW. Sprint Electric was one of 28 successful applicants from 89 applications for funding. The West Sussex based business, which has traditionally focused on DC drives, has been has been collaborating with the University of Nottingham on the AC technology since 2018. The patented AC drives provide will precise control of AC motors, combined with e«cient energy regeneration – a capability which most traditional AC variable-speed drives do not ožer. The Generis drive provides full four-quadrant control, as well as unity power factor and minimal input current distortion. Fourquadrant control removes the need for active front-end drives or braking resistors, simplifying the control of AC motors in complex applications. The technology will reduce heat generation, and improve motor accuracy and system e«ciencies. Sprint wins Innovate UK funding to expand its AC regen range