If you’re asked what Tesla makes, you’ll have the answer on the tip of your tongue: electric and (almost) autonomous cars. But robotics is also on the company’s radar. It’s no coincidence that, at Tesla AI Day 2022, Elon Musk introduced Optimus, a real humanoid robot —not a person dressed as a robot.
The codename refers to Optimus Prime, the robot that stars in the Transformers franchise. Okay, Tesla’s Optimus isn’t capable of getting involved in a fight and doesn’t turn into a vehicle. Despite this, he shares some systems and sensors with the brand’s cars.
Musk’s idea is to put the robot up for sale in the not-too-distant future, priced at $20,000. Note, with this, that Tesla does not just intend to have a humanoide robot concept. The plan is to turn it into a real product, to be bought even by individuals.
From Bumble C to Optimus
At the event, Musk first introduced the Bumble C, codenamed a robot without an external housing that, as such, exhibited cables and its mechanical structure. Probably, the decision to show it like this was based on the intention to prove that that is a true prototype.
That’s because, last year, Tesla did a demonstration with a person dressed as a robot. The idea was to illustrate what the project should be able to do, but a climate of embarrassment stayed in the air.
At this year’s event, the real robot took a few steps on stage and waved to the audience without the aid of external cables or other types of support. However, his movements were slow and little varied.
It wasn’t unexpected. Before the robot entered the stage, a Tesla engineer warned that it was the first time he had done a demonstration without supporting elements.
According to Musk, the robot will be more agile when it can count on actuators (mechanisms that produce movements) developed by Tesla itself. The unit exhibited at Tesla AI Day 2022 uses actuators from other companies.
Although fairly limited, the current Bumble C is the result of work that began six months ago, Tesla officials explained. They understand that for this short period, the results are very interesting.
But the plan is to make Bumble C evolve into Optimus. A prototype of the latter, officially named Tesla Optimus Unit 1, was also shown on stage. It has an external finish that resembles more the shape of a man than the previous robot.
However, Optimus is in the early stages. So initial that he still can’t walk alone and made just a hand salute before failing to move altogether.
He’s not walking yet, but when he does, he’s going to have to remember a human moving, in fact. The robot has 28 structural actuators and, it is estimated, will have consumption of 100 W seated and 500 W walking. It just isn’t exactly light: at the current stage, we’re talking 73 kg.
Nice, but who’s going to buy it?
Elon Musk acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done, but he expects the robot to be truly ready for use in five or ten years.
To this end, the project will take advantage of some technologies already available for Tesla cars. One example is Autopilot, autonomous driving software that is being adapted to work with the humanoide robot.
The idea is that it can load volumes up to 10 kg, handle tools and perform small repetitive tasks. In later steps, the robot may even perform more complex activities, such as cooking (will you?).
Wireless connectivity (including Wi-Fi), audio support, and hardware-level security features to protect both the robot and surrounding people will also be part of the package.
On the last aspect, I imagine that the goal is to prevent the robot from being hacked to attack humans, for example (help, Isaac Asimov!).
$20,000 for a humanoid robot that can perform many tasks doesn’t seem like a bad price. But the question is, who’s going to buy a robot like that? I can imagine him working in factories, for example. On the other hand, I don’t know if we’re prepared to have something like this in the home environment.
Anyway, Musk made it clear that the robot is being developed to be produced on a large scale. Even a version with shapes that resemble a woman is in the entrepreneur’s plans.