Memphis startup creating chopstick-using robot to aid logistics firms


Before co-founding a Memphis-based robotics startup, Evan Drumwright was a senior research scientist at Toyota Research Institute, working on a robot that would load and start a dishwasher.

While Drumwright thought the project was interesting, he said he wanted to create something more practical with “real-world impact.” Drumwright narrowed his focus on the logistics industry, envisioning a dexterous robot that could pick up objects and perform other tasks with a pair of large chopsticks.

“It’s kind of a sci-fi-like vision,” he said.

That vision is coming to life at Dextrous Robotics, a company headquartered in Crosstown Concourse and co-founded by Drumwright and Sam Zapolsky, who has helped Drumwright refine the robot’s design. The company’s first prototype uses “seven degrees of freedom” arms from German company Franka Emika attached with force torque sensors. The chopsticks, or carbon fiber poles, are at the end of the sensors.

“The force torque sensors are able to sense the force on the poles when the robot is making contact and how much force is being applied,” said Drumwright, the company’s CEO.

The robot is ideal for moving heavy objects quickly in constrained spaces like a shipping container or a railroad box car, Drumwright said. Products are easier to move in a warehouse where a problem can be tackled with more manpower, but the tight spaces of freight-holding containers present new challenges.

Moving products in a container in difficult conditions — think Memphis in the summer heat — is a job ideal for a robot, Drumwright said. Cutting the duration of this chokepoint in half would be significant for a business, he added.

“With the constrained nature of the task, you can’t just throw more people at this problem,” he said. “If you’re trying to move product or packages as quick as possible, then you’re just going to be throttled by the speed in which you can do this task. That’s what happens with shipping companies today.”

Research and development is being conducted in Memphis, and six of the company’s ten engineers are based there. The company moved to Crosstown Concourse in September.

Dextrous Robotics is receiving backing from Silicon Valley venture capital firms, and its founders chose Memphis due to the large number of distribution centers and logistics companies in the area that could use its technology, according to a company news release.

“We have already received a lot of interest from bigger companies, ones that move a lot of packages,” said Drumwright, who declined to give any names.

The company’s second prototype remains under construction. It will be much more powerful than the first, Drumwright says, upgrading the weight it can lift from about 10 pounds to 88 pounds and moving that payload at much higher speeds. Dextrous Robotics is expecting the second prototype to be ready by August of next year, he said.

“The main purpose of the first prototype is hammering out our software,” he said. “We’ve been doing that while the second prototype is being designed.”

Max Garland covers FedEx, logistics and health care for The Commercial Appeal. Reach him at or 901-529-2651 and on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes.

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