Industrial assembly lines have been using robots for decades now. Generally, these are in the form of highly precise and expensive robotic arms that perform very specific tasks, such as bolting a car’s frame. More recently though, the industry has seen the potential in all-purpose robots meant to work more closely with humans. These machines, known as collaborative robots, or cobots, trade extreme precision for a sense of ‘feeling’, using sensors that detect when contact is made with a person.
The most well-known helper bots are Rethink Robotics’ now-legendary Baxter and Sawyer, both designed to work as humans do — complete with a flat-screen face that telegraph “emotions”, such as curiosity, surprise, and even embarrassment. Baxter is a humanoid robot with two arms with seven degrees of freedom (DOF), a torso, and a head, whereas Sawyer only has one robotic arm with seven degrees of freedom (DOF) and no separate body.
Released in 2012, the relatively cheap robots allowed researchers to experiment with a robot’s manipulation powers without fear of injury. But while Baxter and Sawyer have had great success in the lab, with basically every engineering department with a knack for robotics across the US owning one, commercial demand had been lacking. Since 2018, the two robots have been discontinued — but that doesn’t mean that Rodney Brooks, the founder of Rethink, has given up on friendly cobots.
With the many lessons learned from Baxter and Sawyer, Brooks has founded a new company, called Robust AI, whose flagship product, a dolly-like robot called Carter, is designed to enhance productivity in the warehouse.
“The analogy here is a service dog,” Brooks told Wired. “It obeys you; you can modify its behavior, and it’s there to help you.”
Carter drops the humanoid feature seen in Baxter and Sawyer in favor of more practical features that are at home in a warehouse, including a motorized base, a periscope mounted with several cameras, and a touchscreen display fixed above the handlebar. The cameras are constantly scanning in 360 degrees the often busy and chaotic warehouse environment, allowing Carter to immediately identify nearby workers and what they’re up to. For instance, if a worker’s pose suggests they are about to lift some boxes, the robot may be programmed to approach them and offer assistance.
While Carter is natively autonomous, any worker can grab the robot’s handle, which switches the machine to manual mode. Using a simple point-and-tap graphical interface, an operator can configure Carter to perform all sorts of useful tasks, such as following a person around the warehouse while carrying items that need to be stored on shelves. Carter can tell all of these things thanks to Grace — the ‘brains’ of the robot, a software suite that processes all the inputs from Carter’s array of sensors and cameras.
It’s this ability to read and respond to human body language that is Carter’s main defining feature. The vast majority of industrial robots are inflexible robotic arm-like machines that are very rigid in scope and function. Often, they have their own space in the industrial environment and might even be encased in cages to prevent them from hurting anyone. But by having friendly cobots, Robust AI strongly believes that this makes human labor less repetitive and more productive, freeing workers to take on new responsibilities.
A lot of people are anxious about developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, fearing these spell the end of their careers. However, Carter and cobots like it are designed to cooperate with humans, not replace them — or at least that’s the promise for now. This is especially ideal in small warehouses that cannot afford to redesign their storage to accommodate conventional automation. Instead, having robots that can safely mix with people, while boosting their productivity may be an ideal value proposition.
Seeing human and robot capabilities as complementary rather than having one replace the other is a major paradigm shift in the industry. And if the market is any indication, these robots should be well received. According to the International Federation of Robotics, cobot sales grew 6% worldwide in 2020 compared to just 0.5% for all industrial robots over the same period.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.