If you want to catch a glimpse of the future — as in, blockbuster Hollywood sci-fi future — try going for a stroll down a picturesque stretch of waterfront in sleepy Albany, Oregon, population 53,000 souls.
On a bright November morning, across from an Albany lumber yard flanked by big Oregon red alders, a two-legged robot named Cassie stepped through the leaves. The robot’s legs moved steadily up and down with a slight pop at the bottom of every step and its eyeless head, a small box nestled between its limbs, swiveled with a lifelike quality. Curious joggers stopped to get a closer look, one woman congratulated her dogs on not peeing on the robot, and an old man biked by with a look on his face like he absolutely did not have time to deal with this.
Cassie’s creators want this scene to be normal one day.
Cassie, which looks like a pair of velociraptor legs painted safety orange, is the sole product made by startup Agility Robotics. Agility spun off from Oregon State University (OSU) early in 2017, and from its office among the trees and old bridges of Albany, the company’s co-founders, robotics lab director Jonathan Hurst and former student Jones, are plotting to take over the world with a pair of mechanical legs.
Walking on two legs is hard for robots. It’s both a mechanical challenge and a physics problem, and Agility Robotics says it’s figured both elements out in a way that — and this is the crucial point — lets them sell robots to people right now. While Boston Dynamics’ bipedal Atlas robot, unlike Cassie, can do backflips, you can’t buy one. Cassie, on the other hand, is a production model that can walk, right out of the box.
The ability to walk on two legs will have huge advantages in the future, when robots may need to navigate spaces to deliver packages, for example, or care for the elderly in their homes. For that, Hurst believes, they will need legs. Not wheels, or treads, but legs. This, their pitch goes, means we won’t have to redesign the world to accommodate robots — they’ll exist comfortably in human spaces.
“When I retire, I want Agility Robotics to be behind the legs and locomotion of the robot that’s taking care of me in my home,” Hurst told me in the OSU robotics lab that he directs and where Cassie got its start.
But the clock is ticking down on Agility’s edge in the robot market. A pair of working robot legs is great, but they won’t deliver a package containing your new pair of headphones on their own. For that, you need arms and eyes. And, it goes without saying, a partner willing to give such a sci-fi premise a shot.
At the Agility Robotics office in early November, the mood was subdued in a way that might otherwise be relaxing on a bright Monday morning in Oregon. Hurst made calls and tapped on his keyboard with a stony-faced look while Jones amicably showed me around. It was a sparse room, with just a handful of people working quietly at desks and two Cassie robots strung up by harnesses at one end of the office.
After a rapid bootstrap phase, Hurst and Jones seemed keenly aware that things are about to change for Agility, and my being there was just one more indication. “Maybe we’ve made a lot of progress in a short time, but it’s not enough,” Hurst told me.
Agility Robotics revealed and produced a new kind of robot within its first year. This is largely because much of the physics that govern Cassie’s movement were figured out with ATRIAS, a walking robot that Hurst and a team of students demonstrated at the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge. After an impressive showing, Hurst received a $1 million grant from DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research wing, to make more robots. And thus Cassie, and Agility Robotics, were born.
Right now, the process for manufacturing Cassie is a farm-to-table affair. Jones lives on a piece of his family’s farm in a sheet metal structure. The research is done at the university in nearby Corvallis. All of the machining for the robot happens at a local machine shop that has a long-standing relationship with Hurst and his particular needs as a roboticist, and the assembly is done at Agility HQ in Albany.
But if Cassie is the future of ambulatory humanoid robots, it’s hard to see how the company can keep their process as hyper-local as it is now.
The tension between Agility Robotics’ aspirations and its homegrown process became clear at the Ram-Z Fab shop in Corvallis, where Cassie’s parts are made. The shop owner is Scott Ramsey, a large and friendly man with a gruff exterior. All along the walls are calendars and posters from a pub called Squirrel’s Tavern, going back to 1993. Ramsey tells me he’s been going to Squirrel’s every week for 25 years.
“You gonna keep it local?” Ramsey asked Hurst with a grunt in the front office of Ram-Z Fab.
“Yep,” Hurst replied. “This is a great place to built a company; it’s about half the cost of doing business.”
The previous day, at the OSU robotics lab where Cassie got its start, Hurst told me in unambiguous terms: “The goal of Agility is to grow aggressively.”
There’s one more thing adding to a sense of uncertainty around Agility Robotics’ future, and it’s a big one: Cassie doesn’t do anything but walk. It doesn’t have mechanical eyes to “see” the world, and it doesn’t have arms to lift packages. It’s going to need these things if it’s ever going to fulfill the vision of Hurst and Jones.
When I asked Jones if Cassie can do anything useful at the moment, he laughed and said, “That’s a low blow.”
The clock is ticking for Agility to turn Cassie-the-pair-of-robot-legs into Cassie-the-robot-that-can-do-something, because the company has sold four robots to university labs across the country. These academics are no doubt peeling back Cassie’s mechanical layers to figure out their own methods of controlling its movements. Cassie even comes outfitted with two computer brains: one that’s pre-loaded with Agility Robotics’ software, and one for the customer to try their own algorithms on.
“Where we’re at is basically beta testing,” Jones continued. “We’re treating [Cassie] as a platform that we can send to highly capable robotics teams that know what they’re doing — they’re not Joe off the street.”
Jones assured me that a new robot is coming from Agility, and after the success of Cassie it will define the company’s future. The next robot could either deliver on Cassie’s promise or potentially sink the venture. Hurst and Jones were tight-lipped about what the next robot will look like, but the company has already confirmed that the next one will have arms.
This sense of uncertainty about the future seems to be reflected in Jones’ current accommodations.
He lives in a temporary-looking sheet metal structure on his parents’ farm, where they grow grass seed. One part of the structure is a garage where Jones tinkers with dirt bikes (a deconstructed engine was splayed out on a truck bed while I visited), and the rest is a small apartment. There is nothing around but chestnut trees.
“Been here for six months,” Jones told me in his tin can apartment. “Don’t want to get too comfortable.”