This Warehouse Robot Reads Human Body Language

Sales of workplace robots worldwide are growing steadily after a recent slowdown in growth due to the pandemic, according to data from the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group. Sales of “collaborative robots,” meaning robots that work in the same physical space as humans without necessarily assisting them directly, grew 6 percent worldwide in 2020, compared with 0.5 percent for all industrial robots over the same period.

Last week Amazon unveiled a new mobile robot, called Proteus, that has its own rudimentary ability to sense humans. While other robots in Amazon facilities work in separate physical spaces from humans—for example, to move shelves stacked with goods to within reach of human workers—Proteus can navigate through areas in which people are working. It uses sensors to look out for humans or other obstacles, and stops if it detects that it might bump into someone. Amazon’s announcement “indicates they are making investments toward greater and greater collaboration,” says Brad Porter, who previously worked as a vice president of robotics at Amazon and who is now the founder and CEO of Collaborative Robots, another startup working on robots designed to work more closely with humans.

Robust AI hopes to go further than Amazon by developing robots that can see what human workers are up to, and help them out. Brooks says this should make human labor less repetitive, and could help workers take on new responsibilities. “We’re not trying to replace people here,” he says. “We want to make robots work for people rather than the other way around.”

Clara Vu, a cofounder and the CTO of Veo Robotics, a company that has developed software that makes even large, powerful robots safe to work around, says the opportunities for human-robot teamwork are growing because the technology needed to sense, map, and move through human workplaces is becoming more commonplace. “We’re finding more robots and people working together,” she says. “People are starting to look at human and robot capabilities as really very complementary.”

Robust AI is targeting its technology at 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 are unable to completely redesign their operations around conventional automation that doesn’t mix well with people. Companies in that position might be more likely to invest in something like Carter, he says, but it can be tricky to measure the return an operation gets on this kind of human-robot teamwork.

Bilge Mutlu, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has done research showing that collaboration between humans and robots can sometimes improve productivity. He has done work with Boeing that involves having robots perform a procedure such as depositing coatings or sanding to make aircraft parts while a human oversees the work, and intervenes only if necessary. But Mutlu says that collaboration does not always improve things, and it is not always clear how best to implement it. “In academia we create these impressive demos and stuff, but the science is not quite there,” he says.

Brooks’ latest robot already makes for a great demo, but it will have to help more companies leap into automation to succeed.

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