12 top companies in the vanguard of the rise of humanoid robots
By Joseph Mapue
Living organisms tend to perpetuate their species, with humans among the most prolific. Having populated every continent on the planet, we have now gone beyond biology to replicate our form in art and engineering our physical attributes into machines.
Unsurprisingly, humanoid robots — both as a physical construct and as a concept — have been around for quite a while. The Japanese have had their vibrant mecha subculture since the 1930s. Centuries before that, Jewish tradition described golems — humanlike creatures formed from clay. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci even designed a humanoid automaton that looks like a knight in armor.
More recently, blockbuster films and franchises featuring robots — such as Star Wars, Terminator, Ex Machina, and Transformers — have generated billions in box office dollars as they spur humans to imagine living with, fighting against, and even making love to robots.
But fictional robots aren’t the only humanoid machines that are making fortunes. Real-world robots built by tech companies are also cashing in on our passion for robots. In fact, the humanoid robot market is slated to explode from US$2.1 billion in 2020 to US$7.9 billion in 2025 according to BCC Research.
Configured either as wheeled or bipedal, these humanoid products offer businesses, institutions, and consumers a full range of applications: from education and entertainment to healthcare and public relations. Some companies even specialize in building robots for high-risk research, space exploration, security, and sex.
Among the more prominent brands in the industry are veteran players such as Boston Dynamics and Qihan Technology as well as new startups like Agility Robotics and Promobot. Here are insights into 12 of the most noteworthy players in the space.
Bearing its founder’s namesake, Hanson Robotics builds human-like robots designed for emotive interactions and intelligent conversations with people. In addition to AI and speech recognition technology, the company uses a patented material that closely resembles real human skin to create machines that genuinely look, speak, and act like humans.
Hanson Robotics is known for launching popular signature robots such as Professor Einstein, Albert HUBO, and Sophia, the first robot ever to be granted citizenship (by Saudi Arabia). Named as a UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) champion, Sophia has also been featured in many talk shows including Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan and the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.
Formed in 2007, the Hong Kong-based company aims to market their robotics and AI products to businesses and organizations in education, research, entertainment, healthcare, media, and consumer services industries. So far, the company has raised around US$21.7 million over four funding rounds. Investors include Disney Accelerator and ACE & Company..
Founder and CEO David Hanson Jr. is an American roboticist and author who has published numerous research papers in animation, materials science, AI, and cognitive science. He previously worked as a Walt Disney Imagineer, tapping his skills as a sculptor and a robotics specialist. Having been featured in Wired, Popular Science, Scientific American,and The New York Times, Hanson Jr. holds a PhD in Interactive Arts and Technology and has received numerous awards including those from NASA, Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, and Tech Titans’ Innovator of the Year.
Founded in 1992 as the corporate spinoff of MIT’s peerless engineering legacy, Boston Dynamics develops highly mobile robots that include some of the most iconic machines ever built. Atlas, its humanoid robot, was launched in 2013 and has developed since then into a fully-articulated, highly agile bipedal machine that can run, jump, dance, do somersaults, and perform impressive parkour tricks. Five-feet tall and weighing around 190 lbs, the latest Atlas variant became a viral sensation in 2021 and was described to have ushered in a new species: Robo sapiens.
As its business mantra, Boston Dynamics focuses on building machines that help humans reduce work-related risks, tediousness, and difficulties. The company works with or provides advice to organizations such as NASA, the US Army, and Sony Corporation in developing advanced robots for solving complex challenges.
In 2019, the company introduced Spot, a dog-like quadruped with a full-range of sensors and data-capture equipment. Spot can be used to automate routine inspections of known environments or explore uncharted regions. The robot is being upgraded and tested by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for autonomous exploration of Martian-like terrains. In more familiar environments like power plants and construction sites, Spot can be used for industrial inspections, quality control, public safety, and security. Police and fire departments use Spot for a variety of tasks that primarily help keep first responders safer and gather crucial data for making informed, life-saving decisions.
South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Motor Group holds an 80% stake in the company while Japan’s Softbank holds the remaining 20%.
Formed in Barcelona, PAL Robotics in 2004 introduced the first fully autonomous humanoid robot in Europe. The company’s precision-engineered machines are designed for human collaboration and can be deployed for domestic tasks as well as industrial applications.
As its business model, PAL Robotics ensures that its products possess a high level of customizability to allow users to integrate a range of modular parts based on their requirements. The company’s humanoid robots can be tailormade for logistics, retail, marketing, social, research, and other purposes.
The company’s range of machines includes TALOS (a 1.75-m tall bipedal robot that can walk , run, carry, and manipulate tools of up to 6 kg. In weight): ARI (a wheeled AI-enabled humanoid robot designed to inform and interact with humans); and TIAGo (a robot with an articulated arm and gripper that can be useful in industrial or commercial environments).
To the delight of every robot fan, Softbank Robotics introduced Pepper in 2014. Mounted on wheels for mobility, the 4-foot humanoid is the world’s first social robot that possesses facial recognition technology. Pepper can also identify and respond appropriately to basic human emotions. Able to proactively interact with people, Pepper can converse in 15 languages including English, Arabic, French, and Spanish.
Since its launch Pepper has been adopted by thousands of businesses and organizations around the world as a dependable assistant, usher, guide, and concierge agent. To date, more than 25,000 units of Peppers and NAOs (Softbank Robotics’ first commercial bipedal robot) have been used by customers in 70 countries and in various sectors including retail, education, healthcare, and tourism.
With offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, San Francisco, Boston, and Paris, SoftBank Robotics constitutes the Softbank Group’s holding company for its robotics business. Softbank Robotics has raised a total of US$263 Million from one round of funding. Its mother company, Softbank Group, is the second largest publicly traded company in Japan after Toyota, and one of largest in the world.
Shadow Robot Company
Need a hand? Shadow Robot Company has exactly what you need.
Formed in 1987, London-based Shadow Robot builds highly articulated machines and systems based on the physiology and functionality of human hands. Honed and precision-engineered over the years, the firm’s products fill a niche requirement for businesses and organizations that need sophisticated robotics with advanced dexterity to perform complex tasks in sensitive research, hazardous conditions, or remote working environments. Shadow’s robotic hands can be built either as autonomous or teleoperated systems.
The Tactile Telerobot — Shadow’s latest product — is the world’s first haptic telerobotic hand. The system enables a remote human operator from anywhere in the world to manipulate a distant object; and sends a realistic touch feedback to facilitate robotic hand movements with surgical precision. The Tactile Telerobot has been praised by industry observers including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Having raised nearly a billion dollars (US$940 M) over 4 funding rounds, Shenzhen-based UBTech Robotics has what it takes to deliver on its mission: bring a robot into every home and business. Since its founding in 2012, it’s been doing a lot more than that, prompting Fast Company to include UBTech in its Top 20 Most Innovative Companies in 2019.
UBTech Robotics develops AI technologies and builds humanoid robots for various applications, with a global network of distributorships. Among its notable products are WalkerX (a highly mobile autonomous humanoid robot that can navigate difficult terrain and respond to human emotions); Cruzr (a cloud-based service robot on wheels that can be used in smart banks, retail shops, hotels, clinics, and cloud-enabled environments); and AimBot (a wheeled robot with multi-sensors and comms system).
In 2018, UBTech’s robots (1,372 Alpha S1 units) were used by Telecom Italia Mobile to set a Guinness world record for the most number of dancing robots in a single event. In 2020, the company’s robots assisted medical workers in Shenzhen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tencent, ICBC, Haier, and Green Pine Capital Partners are some of UBTech’s key investors.
Robot cashiers, bartenders, and kitchen assistants are already among us.
Thanks to companies like Seville-based Macco Robotics, friendly humanoid robots now work as food servers, kiosk managers, and tireless preparers of food and drinks at swanky bars, cafes, and restaurants around the world.
Formed in 2013, Macco Robotics is a tech company focused on building creative solutions for the food, beverage, and hospitality industries. With shortage in human staff and the need for ultra-hygienic workflows and environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, the business case for Macco’s signature products only became more solid.
Among Macco’s best-selling robots are Kime (a humanoid robotic kiosk that directly serves food and drinks to consumers); Cart (a wheeled autonomous platform that can prepare and serve meals and beverages on the go); and DBot (an automated mobile platform that can “disinfect” the surroundings and “deliver” service in ultra-busy restaurants and events).
Macco Robotics has raised US$188.7 K over three funding rounds and has offices in Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, London and Dubai.
As its name suggests, Agility Robotics focuses on designing and building fully-articulated robots for various real-world applications. Founded in 2015, the company launched its first bipedal robot, Cassie in 2017; followed by the more human-like Digit in 2020. Digit can walk, run, climb stairs, sense the environment, and manually carry loads. Perfect as a warehouse assistant, Digit’s all-weather capabilities also enable it to serve outdoors.
Agility has raised some US$28.8 M over three funding rounds that attracted investors such as Playground Global and ITIC.
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, CTO Jonathan Hurst highlighted Digit’s flexibility and multi-purpose design, claiming that the platform can be adapted to a wide range of business needs.
Toyota Research Institute
One of the planet’s most recognizable and admired brands, Toyota maintains many cross-industry subsidiaries, research, and investments on top of its automotive business. Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is the global company’s R&D enterprise focusing on AI and robotics.
TRI was founded in 2016 by prominent American robotics engineer James J. Kuffner Jr.
Even before TRI, Toyota already has a history of robot love, with the firm showcasing a trumpet-playing robot in 2004 belting out the classic track When You Wish Upon a Star. Around a year later, Toyota introduced the rest of the humanoid band — called The Toyota Partner Robots. The 5-member band played music using drums and trumpets at the 2005 World EXPO in Aichi, Japan.
In 2017, Toyota introduced T-HR3, a remote-controlled robot that can replicate the motions of a connected person from a distance. Designed for space travel, a later version of T-HR3 uses 5G technology for remote control over a distance of up to 10 km. T-HR3 is a bipedal humanoid machine with a sensor-equipped head and fully articulated limbs.
More known for swanky electric vehicles and its flamboyant CEO Elon Musk, Tesla is a trillion-dollar company leading the charge towards electric mobility and clean energy generation.
Tapping its successes in the FSD (Full Self-Driving) chip technology and autonomy algorithms, the company’s Artificial Intelligence & Autopilot Division started developing the Tesla Bot. In an August 2021 press event, Elon Musk unveiled plans for the slender, 5-foot 8-inch humanoid robot that is powered by Tesla’s autopilot AI, computers, cameras, and batteries.
Purposely designed to be an all-around servant, the Tesla Bot can handle tasks that are deemed risky, tedious, or boring by humans. To reduce the threat of a dystopian man-vs-machine apocalypse, the robot has been deliberately scaled down in size and strength.
While the Tesla Bot can one day become a resident gardener, technician, or cook, it is still in the development stage and the release date for the commercial version is still beyond the horizon.
Judging by the box-office success of robot flicks like Terminator, and the popularity of individual humanoid machines like C3PO and Bumblebee, the market is more than ready to embrace real-world robots designed for brand promotion.
Promobot is simply the next logical — and most likely, profitable — step in the process. Formed in 2015, Pormobot manufactures autonomous humanoid robots for service delivery in people-oriented or customer-facing business units.
Companies can use Promobot to complement or replace human staff by performing tedious tasks and workflows. Capable of linking with a company’s existing digital systems (database, online services, etc.), Promobot can work as a brand or product promoter, concierge agent, customer service aide, tour guide, admin staff, security guard, or medical assistant. Always cheerful and ready to help, Promobot can scan documents, issue tickets, and entertain customers.
Over four funding rounds, Promobot has raised around US$8.1Million, with Russia’s Vostok Ventures and FASIE among its ardent investors.
Shenzhen-based Qihan Technology designs and develops a wide range of digital products, but is mostly known as a leading manufacturer of CCTV surveillance systems and solutions. Formed in 2006, the company launched its first commercial robot — called Sanbot Elf — at the IFA 2016 in Berlin. The wheeled humanoid robot uses AI and links with cloud-based systems to perform different tasks and deliver a wide range of services.
Qihan’s next two robots — Sanbot King Kong and Sanbot Nano — complete a comprehensive portfolio that can meet different needs in the domestic, education, security, healthcare, retail, and other sectors. All Sanbot variants are flexible and customizable to match a home or a company’s operational requirements.
Affirming the product’s marketability, Sanbot units have already been deployed in Chinese hospitals and airports (including Shenzhen International). According to its UK distributor’s website, Sanbot units and systems are available either for purchase or rental.