Boulder, Colorado

CEO Timothy Morrissey has a vision for better actuators that mimic natural movements.

Photos Jonathan Castner

Morrissey and his co-founders planted the seeds for Artimus Robotics as grad students in mechanical engineering at CU Boulder.

After publishing their findings in Science and Science Robotics in 2018, the story went national as outlets like NPR and Wired reported on the team’s work. “That press coverage brought about commercial interest,” says Morrissey.

As its moniker hints (Artimus: a follower of the Greek goddess of wild animals, Artemis), the company’s actuator design “takes inspiration from nature and biology,” says Morrissey. “We know that humans and other animals are pretty good movers. We’re pretty good at moving around in complex environments. Millions of years of evolution have brought that forward. We already have a good formula for motion, but roboticists and engineers have had trouble replicating that.”

It follows that Artimus’ HASEL Actuators build on “artificial muscles” pioneered in pneumatic form in the 1950s. “We make essentially a compact, controllable linear actuator,” says Morrisey. “They’re soft and compliant structures, just like soft and compliant muscles on your own body. Our technology . . . is unique in its use of electronics and highly compliant polymers and liquids. That makes it very controllable, makes it intelligent, makes it compliant.”

The technology hinges on “unique polymer bags,” he adds. “They almost look more like a catsup packet than a traditional cylinder.”

The company leverages liquid dielectrics instead of pneumatics. “We took inspiration from high-voltage transformers for grid-scale power,” says Morrisey. “They use liquid dielectrics due to their inherent self-healing properties. If you get a liquid dielectric, like an oil, the oil will naturally handle that breakdown and reflow and return to a rest state.”

The technology allows for a range of motion rather than binary, on/off predecessors. “It’s electrically controlled, so you can get all these states in between,” says Morrissey. “[Pneumatics] are rather inefficient, because you’ve got to have a big compressor generating your compressed air, you’ve got lines, they always leak, and it’s not controllable. It’s not intelligent. You don’t know if your pneumatic cylinder is operating well or not until there’s a catastrophic failure.”

Pneumatic actuators are not only energy-inefficient, he notes, they’re also expensive to operate and maintain. “There’s a pump, there’s a valve block, there’s a bladder, there’s a reservoir. There are all of these components to get a pneumatic actuator to work. Ours is just simple — basic electronics package, some wires to our actuator, and it moves.”

Industrial automation is a top target market, says Morrissey, citing the metering of conveyor systems at fulfillment centers as a top application. “In the same way that the automobile is going from gasoline to electric, industrial automation is going from pneumatic to electric,” he says. “We’re developing a drop-in replacement for this conveying-metering device so that we can go all-electric and intelligent. Our technology can get information out of the actuators very well, so we can detect failures, reduce downtime, things like that.”

Another application in manufacturing: gripping robotic hands. “When you make a soft, compliant actuator, it’s inherently extremely flexible,” says Morrissey. “Flexible meaning the material, and flexible in what it can do. It can pick up small objects, big objects, delicate objects, strangely shaped objects. We’re doing quite a bit trying to develop an end effector for high-mix environments.”

Morrissey forecasts a wide range of industries as target markets for Artimus’ products, including automotive and maritime. The U.S. Navy was the company’s first customer. “We continue to work with them on a unique underwater application,” he says. Artimus has also done work for the Army, NASA, and the National Science Foundation.

“We are positioning ourselves to be a component provider. We fully intend to service different industries for the entire life of our company,” he says. “We don’t see ourselves going all-in on any one vertical. A tried and true actuator company takes the same stance.”

The actuator is still in development and currently in demonstration phase with undisclosed partners, and Morrissey anticipates hitting commercial scale in 2023 or 2024.

Due to the specialized nature of the technology, the company manufactures actuators at its Boulder HQ. “We do the vast majority [of manufacturing] in-house,” he says .”The reason we want to keep it in-house is we do pretty unique combination of physical properties of thin polymer films as well as electrical properties of thin polymer films, and it’s really important for us to keep high control over those [processes].”

And there’s no plan to change that, even at commercial scale: “For the foreseeable future, we plan on keeping it here and we plan on expanding our manufacturing capabilities.”

Challenges: “The industries we’re operating in are inherently old and risk-sensitive industries, and we’re bringing in a very new way to make things move,” says Morrissey. “Just adoption or risk tolerance is a hurdle for us, for sure. There’s a lot of naysayers in the development rooms.”

Opportunities: “There’s more and more automated motion going into environments you wouldn’t have thought of before,” says Morrissey, highlighting healthcare and consumer electronics as up-and-coming areas. “Automotive is a good example. Twenty years ago, people would be, ‘I don’t need my trunk to open and close by itself,’ and now that’s on a lot of cars. The same is coming true in a lot of industries.”

Needs: Following seed funding from Heroic Ventures and several grants, Artimus Robotics will be in the market for more financing — “a Series A or a seed-plus,” says Morrissey — in 2022. “Always more capital,” he says. “Building hardware is a very capital-intensive endeavor, and the timelines to market are slow in the industries we’re operating in, so you’ve got to be able to move with them.”

He adds, “And applications: I’m making a motion tool and always looking for new places that need it. I’m always looking for new applications.”