Future of industrial robots is coming on 2 legs

Human-shaped machines fit where people do, and the arms allow them to pick up and carry objects. Safety is still a stumbling block, though 

MOST people have seen robots in human form. The Hollywood version has starred in movies for decades. Now there are videos on the Internet of real bipedal robots, whether it’s Elon Musk’s Optimus or the incredibly flexible two-legged robot from Boston Dynamics. Agility Robotics has one with legs that bend back at the knees like a flamingo. 

These robots are creepy for some and cool for others. The deeply wired first reaction to the difference in these automated tools will always make human-shaped robots a bit more controversial than the Roomba that bumps around the home or a caged-off, six-axis arm bolted to the floor of an auto factory that can flip around a car body with ease. 

Like them or not, these bipedal robots will become common over time. The form isn’t just a vain attempt to glorify humans. Having two feet helps these robots fit where humans do, and the arms allow them to pick up and carry objects while on the move. Several companies and garage startups are building and testing them now. In limited cases, such as Agility Robotics’ Digit, they are deployed in initial pilot tests on warehouse floors. 

They aren’t ready yet for prime time. In fact, they are still danger- ous and have limitations on power and payload. Starting in 1961 with the Unimate, the first factory robot, the industry takes about two decades from initial availability to widespread deployment. This cycle may be speeding up with the recent introductions of the so-called collaborative robots and the autonomous mobile robots, known by the acronym AMRs. These two latest types of robots are paving the way for human-shaped robots. Collaborative robots, known commonly as cobots, were a break-through because they sport sensors that slow or stop the motion when a human or other objects come close. This keeps them from harming a person and allows the robots to work alongside humans. This technology was invented in 1996 and hit the market less than a decade ago. Now it’s the fastest-growing segment of the industrial robot market with 225,000 cobots already deployed.

Then came the explosion of autonomous mobile robots, which usually have four wheels and a flat surface that allows them to carry objects. These mobile pack mules have revolutionised how warehouses are designed. Essentially, the machines bring stuff to humans instead of workers having to hoof it around a massive warehouse. 

Cobots and mobile robots were everywhere at the Automate show two weeks ago in Chicago. The buzz, though, was around human-shaped robots and the progress toward making them practical tools. The biggest hurdle is to improve safety. Right now, a bipedal robot needs a constant source of power to remain standing. If the power cuts out, these heavy machines crumple to the floor quickly. The problem is compounded if the robot is carrying something. Researchers have tried to lock the robot when power ceases, but then it becomes unstable on two feet and topples over. Until this problem is solved, these machines will have to work apart from humans. 

These early bipedal robots are slow and are limited to a few hours on a charge. They are also expensive and will need to drop considerably in price to enable widespread adoption. That will happen as they move into production and higher volume. Those first use cases must give a return on investment that is similar to the 18 months to a year for most automation projects. 

An early task is the loading of boxes of different sizes, shapes and weights into a standard 53-foot trailer. That is the holy grail of logistics, said United Parcel Service Inc (UPS) Global Operations Techno- log y senior VP Joel Stenson. UPS is interested in humanoid robots, but it doesn’t matter if the robot has two legs or moves on wheels, Stenson said. The package delivery company just wants a machine that can match or surpass a worker’s ability to load and unload packages on trailers at a lower price point. 

Companies like Teradyne Inc, which owns MiR and Universal Robots, and Neura Robotics GmbH, a German start-up, already offer robots on wheels that have movable arms. These machines are a combination of technologies including cameras that give the machines vision and allow them to navigate around obstacles and the cobots that slow or stop when they approach humans. Artificial intelligence (AI) promises to make these robots easier to programme and, in the future, they will act on spoken commands. These robots on wheels will perform some of the same tasks as a bipedal machine. 

The idea that humanoid robots will proliferate is based on the fact that the world is designed around humans. These bipedal robots will fit into that societal structure instead of society having to be redesigned around the robots. 

That means humanoid robots won’t be limited to the factory or warehouse floor. Their advantage over other machines will be in unstructured, fluid work environments, such as a construction site where they may have to step over objects or climb stairs. They will be able to do tasks in buildings and homes because they fit where humans do. Researchers are working on a sensor skin to make the robots sensitive to touch or perhaps temperature. That would allow them to work with people more intimately, such as elderly care. First adoption of service robots will likely take place in countries with the most acute demographic challenges such as Japan, China and other nations that have ageing populations and restrictive immigration policies. 

Throughout time machines have eased the burden of workers by doing the most physical, repetitive work. This has allowed humans to be more productive and earn more. This new class of robots will repeat this pattern. The difference is that humanoid robots will be working closer with people, putting a priority on safety. The rules on how AI is applied to them must be clearly defined. Still, these robots need to always be seen as just tools that help humans be more productive and always considered just as inanimate objects that can be shut down at any time or recycled when no longer needed. 

Whether you think they’re cool or creepy, the humanoid robots are coming. — Bloomberg 

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition