Sales of workplace robots worldwide grow steadily following a recent slowdown in growth due to the pandemic, data from the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group. Sales of ‘collaborative robots’, i.e. robots that work in the same physical space as humans without necessarily helping them directly, grew by 6 percent globally in 2020, compared to 0.5 percent for all industrial robots in the same period.
Last week Amazon unveiled a new mobile robot, called Proteus, which has its own rudimentary ability to sense people. While other robots in Amazon facilities work in separating physical spaces from people-for example, to bring shelves of goods within reach of human workers – Proteus can navigate areas where people are working. It uses sensors to look out for people or other obstacles and stops when it detects it bumping into someone. Amazon’s announcement “indicates that they are investing in an ever-expanding partnership,” said Brad Porter, who previously served as Amazon’s vice president of robotics and now the founder and CEO of Amazon. Collaborative robotsanother startup working on robots designed to work more closely with humans.
Robust AI hopes to move beyond Amazon by developing robots that can see what human workers are doing and help them do it. Brooks says this should make human labor less repetitive and could help employees take on new responsibilities. “We’re not trying to replace people here,” he says. “We want to make robots work in front of people instead of the other way around.”
Clara Vu, Co-Founder and CTO of Veo Robotics, a company that has developed software that can safely use even large, powerful robots, says the possibilities for human-robot teamwork are increasing as the technology needed to detect, map and move through human workplaces , is becoming more common. “We’re finding more and more robots and people working together,” she says. “People are starting to see the capabilities of humans and robots as really complementary.”
Robust AI focuses its technology on smaller warehouses that don’t currently use much automation. Matt Beane, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies how organizations use AI and robotics, and who has consulted for Robust AI, says many companies can’t completely redesign their operations around conventional automation that doesn’t work well with humans. Companies in that position are more likely to invest in something like Carter, he says, but it can be tricky to measure the return an operation gets from this kind of human-robot teamwork.
Bilge Mutluc, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has conducted research showing that collaboration between humans and robots can sometimes improve productivity. He has done work with Boeing where robots have robots perform a procedure such as applying coatings or sanding to make aircraft parts while a human supervises the work, intervening only when necessary. But Mutlu says collaboration doesn’t always improve things and it’s not always clear how best to implement that. “In academia, we’re making these impressive demos and stuff, but the science isn’t quite there yet,” he says.
Brooks’ latest robot is already making for a great demo, but it will need to help more companies make the leap to automation to succeed.