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    Mercedes begins piloting Apptronik humanoid robots


    Pilot season has officially begun for the world of humanoid robotics. Last year, Amazon began testing Agility’s Digit robots in select fulfillment centers, while this January, Figure announced a deal with BMW. Now Apptronik is getting in on the action, courtesy of a partnership with Mercedes-Benz.

    According to the Austin-based robotics startup, “as part of the agreement Apptronik and Mercedes-Benz will collaborate on identifying applications for highly advanced robotics in Mercedes-Benz Manufacturing.” Specific figures have not been disclosed, as is customary for these sorts of deals. Generally, the actual number of systems included in a pilot are fairly small — understandably so, given the early nature of the technology.

    Even so, these deals are regarded as a win-win for both parties. Apptronik can demonstrate clear interest from a leading automotive name, while Mercedes signals to customers and shareholders alike that it’s looking to the future. What comes next is what really matters. Should the pilot go well, causing the carmaker to put in a big order, that would be a massive feather in Apptronik’s cap — and the industry at large.

    Humanoids have been drawing massive investor interest of late, as evidenced by Figure’s recent jaw-dropping $675 million raise. The next couple of years will be vitally important for the continued success of these firms, as they look to prove out meaningful ROI.

    As for what the robots will actually do on the manufacturing floor, co-founder and CEO Jeff Cardenas notes in a release, “Mercedes plans to use robotics and Apollo for automating some low skill, physically challenging, manual labor — a model use case which we’ll see other organizations replicate in the months and years to come.”

    “Low skill” refers to the level of labor these systems will replace. My guess is that it involves a lot of moving totes from point A to point B — something repetitive and physically taxing that is both essential and (relatively) easy to automate. The other important part of “low skill” is also likely an attempt to nip criticism of replacing human workers in the bud. We’re still a ways off from humanoids being able to do so in a meaningful way.

    Apptronik is a University of Austin spinout best known for its work on NASA’s Valkyrie humanoid robot.



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