Biped robot maker Agility raises $20 million

(Reuters) - Agility Robotics said on Thursday it raised $20 million in funding, in a round led by Silicon Valley venture capital firms DCVC and Playground, as two-legged robots start walking out of the lab and into the workplace.

Agility’s biped robot, Digit, is already in testing at Ford Motor Co. Agility Chief Executive Damion Shelton, speaking on a Zoom call with Reuters, said he has deals in place with other major companies to buy the robots but declined to name them.

Economic downturns typically bring new investment in automation. A recent survey of 800 executives by consulting firm McKinsey found nearly 70% of companies accelerated the adoption of automation and artificial intelligence amid the pandemic.

Agility focuses on logistics, where Shelton said Digit can work alongside humans loading packages into vans and lugging packages to doorsteps.

Digit has two arms and legs to walk and climb stairs. Its head is a lidar unit, like the ones used by self-driving car companies to “see” surroundings.

Craig Stephens, who leads Ford’s controls research in areas including autonomous driving and robots, said Agility’s units are easy to assemble. With remote support, his team plugged in Digit’s arms and legs and had it walking in under 40 minutes, he said. Ford has two now and has ordered a third.

Agility expects to produce 20 robots this year and double that every year going forward. Jonathan Hurst, the company’s chief technology officer, said Digit sells for $250,000 but expects the price to drop as volumes grow.

Playground partner Bruce Leak said even at that price the robots are cost competitive. “You don’t have training costs. You don’t have retention costs. And the fact that you could work multiple eight-hour shifts starts to bring their costs in line with what you would pay for normal labor.”

DCVC has also invested in robot firms Kindred AI and Vicarious, said Matthew Ocko, co-founder of DCVC adding that robots now make economic sense.

Gap Inc earlier this year asked Kindred to speed up delivery of its item-picking robots as it coped with fewer workers able to work due to the pandemic.

Digit is not the only biped out there. Video of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing flips has gone viral in recent years, although the company said it remains in the research stage. Its four-legged dog robot Spot, which went on sale in June starting at $74,500, is out walking some factory floors, including Ford’s, said Michael Perry, vice president of business development.

Reporting by Jane Lanhee Lee; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Tom Brown