This warehouse robot reads human body language

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Rodney Brooks knows a little about robots. In addition to being a pioneer of academic research in the field of robotics, he founded companies that gave the world robot vacuum cleaner, bomb disposal botas well as a factory robot that anyone can program.

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Now Brooks wants to introduce another revolutionary type of assistant robot, a mobile warehouse robot that can read human body language to understand what the workers around it are doing. Robots are working harder in close proximity to a person, and finding ways to maximize human-machine collaboration could help companies increase productivity and possibly lead to new kinds of jobs rather than human-replacing robots. But enabling robots to read human signals is far from easy.

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Brooks’ new company, Reliable AI, last week introduced its mobile robot Carter, designed to work in warehouses. “The analogy here is a service dog,” Brooks says via video link. “He obeys you; you can change his behavior and he will help you.”

The rugged AI robot, Carter, looks like a cart you’d find at a home improvement store, but it has a motorized base, a touchscreen mounted above the steering wheel, and a multi-camera periscope. It uses these cameras to scan the surrounding scene, allowing its software to identify nearby workers and trying to infer what they are doing from their posture and how they move. For example, if a person needs to move several boxes, he can approach the Carter robot, which is moving autonomously, and, taking the wheel, take over manual control. The robot can be configured to perform many different tasks using “no codea graphical interface – for example, to follow a person through a warehouse, carrying goods taken from the shelves.

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A new warehouse robot named Carter can move autonomously, identifying objects and human workers.

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Brooks is known for his early exploration of new directions in robotics that swept the entire field, and he was outspoken critic of recent hype over progress in artificial intelligence. But his career also illustrates the challenges of commercializing cutting-edge robotics research.

In the 1990s, Brooks helped make robots more practical, demonstration of benefits an approach that created complex and practical behavior by programming robots with relatively simple rules on how to react to their environment. His laboratory has also groundbreaking work on human-robot interaction. He became a co-founder I am robot, a company that has developed floor cleaning robots, including Roomba, as well as machines used by the military for tasks such as bomb disposal. In 2008, he founded Rethink Robotics, a company that built two workplace robots named Baxter and Sawyer, which were designed to more comfortable than existing bots. But the company rolled up in 2018 citing lack of sales.

Reading and responding to human body language could be a breakthrough for robots if Brooks’ new company can convince other companies to buy its machines. Large industrial robots still usually work inside cages so as not to harm anyone. Although factories and warehouses are increasingly using wheeled item-handling robots and low-powered robotic arms designed to work safely alongside humans, humans and robots still remain largely separated.

Sales of robots for jobs around the world growing steadily after a recent slowdown due to the pandemic, according to International Federation of Robotics, industry group. Sales of “collaborative robots,” i.e. robots that operate in the same physical space as humans without necessarily helping them directly, grew 6% globally in 2020, compared to 0.5% for all industrial robots in 2020. the same period.

Amazon last week introduced a new mobile robot, named Proteus, who has his own rudimentary ability to sense people. While other robots at Amazon facilities work in separate physical space from people– for example, to move shelves of goods within reach of workers – Proteus can move around areas in which people work. It uses sensors to keep an eye on people or other obstacles, and stops if it detects that it might collide with someone. Amazon’s announcement “indicates they are investing in expanding collaboration,” says Brad Porter, formerly VP of Robotics at Amazon and now founder and CEO Collaborative robotsanother startup working on robots designed to interact more closely with humans.

Robust AI hopes to go further than Amazon by developing robots that can see what people are doing and help them. Brooks says this should make human labor less repetitive and could help workers take on new responsibilities. “We are not trying to replace people here,” he says. “We want robots to work per people, and not vice versa.

Clara Wu, co-founder and CTO Veo Robotics, the company that has developed software that allows even large and powerful robots to work safely, says the opportunities for human-robot collaboration are growing as the technology needed to recognize, map and navigate people’s workplaces becomes more widespread. “We are finding more robots and people working together,” she says. “People are starting to see human and robot capabilities as very complementary.”

Robust AI is targeting its technology to smaller warehouses that don’t currently use much automation. Matt Bean, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies how organizations use AI and robotics and has advised on robust AI, says many companies can’t completely rebuild their operations with traditional automation that doesn’t mesh well with people. Companies in this position may be more likely to invest in something like Carter, he says, but it can be difficult to measure the return an operation gets from this kind of human-robot collaboration.

Bilge Mutlu, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted a study showing that collaboration between humans and robots can sometimes improve productivity. He did work with Boeing, in which robots performed procedures such as coating or grinding to make aircraft parts, while a human oversees the work and intervenes only when necessary. But Mutlu says working together doesn’t always make things better, and it’s not always clear how best to implement it. “In academia, we create these impressive demos and stuff, but the science is not exactly there,” he says.

Brooks’ latest robot is already a great demo, but it should help more companies transition to automation to succeed.

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