Show and tell in Vegas: robot reflections from CES 2020

Image: CES®

January 13, 2020      

LAS VEGAS — Robots have been a major part of CES for years, but they have usually been consumer-focused robots, such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner, robot toys such as those from UBTECH, or educational robot systems and similar offerings. At CES 2020, however, we saw major robotics companies that focus on industrial and commercial robotics applications increasingly finding spots on the show floor.

Companies such as FANUC, Doosan Robotics, and OMRON all had a major presence on the South Hall expo floor in the AI & Robotics area at CES 2020 last wee. They showed off robots, vehicles, and other technologies that would more likely be seen at an industrial trade show, such as Automate or ProMat. For many of these companies, it was an opportunity to be seen at the same event as companies showing off 8K television sets, new home theater speaker systems, or AR/VR gaming systems. Often, it felt like robotics companies were doing a “show and tell” session for CES attendees.

This was the biggest takeaway theme around robotics during the annual consumer technology trade show, which draws more than 100,000 attendees from around the world. In addition to the vast expo hall floors, CES held several conference track sessions, including our own “Robots for Good” conference track, which discussed robotics projects aimed at improving the land, the oceans, and human life, as well as exploring space. Here are some additional thoughts and takeaway messages from the show:

Going beyond ping-pong

OMRON used its high-profile location at the front of the robotics area to once again showcase its table tennis robot instructor, along with its AI software. In collaboration with Square Enix, the sixth generation of the FORPHEUS AI uses Square Enix’s Meta-AI technology to recognize and react to emotion in the human player, which can then shape more personalized coaching capabilities.

Based on these real-time perceptions, the robot system can adjust the ball speed of its returns in reaction to the human player’s motivation and ability in order to encourage the player’s improvement, OMRON said. A spokesman said it was not about the robot being able to “beat” the human player, but rather training a player to get better through the use of sustained volleys, something a human coach would also do.

In addition to the table tennis robot, OMRON was also showcasing some of its mobile robot platforms, as well as its cobot robot arms. A spokesman from OMRON said many CES attendees have never been up close with an industrial robot, showing applications of the robot that had a more comfortable feel at CES.

For example, to showcase its mobile manipulation concept (a cobot arm on top of a mobile robot), the robot was being used as a “video selfie” system that could record people playing table tennis with the FORPHEUS system. In addition, attendees could wait in line to receive a laser-engraved metal drinking straw that was created by an OMRON system.

omron i4

The OMRON i4, a next-generation industrial robot equipped with AI for predictive maintenance, made its North American debut at CES 2020. Image: OMRON

“OMRON’s founding principle is to improve lives and contribute to a better society – that’s the cornerstone of our business and drives what we do,” stated Nigel Blakeway, managing executive officer of OMRON Corp. “At CES, we invite attendees to engage with our robots and to experience firsthand how they might encounter and benefit from OMRON technologies in manufacturing, in society, and in their personal lives.”

The company also used CES 2020 to demonstrate its i4 next-generation industrial robot, which includes embedded artificial intelligence for predictive maintenance. The self-diagnosing robot can detect when it needs repairs or routine maintenance, and it can communicates this status to workers. OMRON also showed off its latest sensors, which are intended to enable comfortable and safe working environments for employees.

Up close with an exoskeleton

In the Central Hall, Sarcos Robotics drew large crowds at the Delta Air Lines booth, giving demonstrations of its new Guardian XO industrial exoskeleton. For many attendees, this was a rare opportunity to see how companies could take advantage of powered exoskeleton systems to lift heavy objects, including luggage, airplane tires, and even turbine engine parts.

Sarcos developed the battery-powered, full-body exoskeleton as a way to boost human performance and endurance, while also aiming to prevent injuries. The robotic suit is able to do the heavy lifting, enabling employees to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue, Sarcos said.

CES 2020 Sarcos

At CES 2020, Sarcos drew large crowds to see the company’s exoskeleton demonstrations. Image: CES®

“We owe it to the best airline employees on the planet to explore how emerging technology can make their jobs safer and easier,” said Gareth Joyce, Delta’s Senior Vice President – Airport Customer Service & Cargo. “That’s why we sought out a partnership with Sarcos.”

Delta worked directly with Sarcos to determine potential operational uses for the Guardian XO. In November, officials representing airport customer service and cargo operations visited Sarcos to see the Guardian XO in action, and to explore how wearable robotics could benefit them in everyday work.

The airline said it plans to test the technology in a pilot location during Q1 2020, giving employees the opportunity to experience it in real-world settings, and to provide Sarcos with additional feedback. Delta said that these systems can also provide for a more diverse talent pool in roles that historically were limited to those who met specific strength requirements.

Delta began working with Sarcos in 2018 as part of its Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group (X-TAG), representing the aviation sector. The X-TAG includes 10 of the Fortune 100 across several industries, including industrial manufacturing, oil and gas, utilities, logistics, construction, and automotive, in addition to aviation and aerospace.

“We look for companies who are clear leaders in tech adoption and have a history of innovating to meet the needs of their customers and their employees,” said Ben Wolff, CEO of Sarcos. “Delta is the natural fit in the airline industry and has proven to be a great partner as we work to fine tune this technology for commercial deployment.”

Sarcos said it is accepting orders for the Guardian XO, and plans to deliver commercial production units in late 2020.

Other thoughts from the show

  1. Despite fears of automation displacing jobs, the potential for robotics to augment human capabilities across industries remains vast. There was less discussion around robots replacing jobs, and more on how robots can assist humans to improve productivity and outcomes. From vehicles and food preparation to surgery and space exploration, speakers at the RBR event as well as on the show floor expressed confidence.
  2. Mobile platforms are increasingly popular, particularly in supply chain/materials handling, but robotic grasping still has room for improvement, according to speakers in our track.
  3. Autonomous vehicle announcements focused largely on progress in sensing and computational power.
  4. Field robotics, from farming to last-mile deliveries, is advancing, but the use cases and return on investment need to be clear.
  5. 5G networking, which promises to improve bandwidth and reduce latency, is starting to roll out, said speakers in a panel on “5G and Robotics.” It will be necessary to take full advantage of the Industrial Internet of Things, but deployments and new applications will take a while. Hybrid models are likely for choices of processing on the edge vs. the cloud, as well as for data analysis.
  6. Integrating data and lots of different devices is desirable for sensor fusion, centralized control, and machine learning, but there need to be more standards and cybersecurity guarantees.
  7. Not only can robots help improve the quality of healthcare, but they can also significantly reduce risks to medical practitioners. Interface design is key to effective human-machine interaction. A corollary is that humanoid designs will continue to be popular, but service applications are just starting to grow.
  8. Collaborations involving academia, government, and companies of all sizes can benefit humanity, said conference speakers. Diverse teams can be more innovative, and approaches that start with “impossible” problems can exceed expectations. The robotics industry is also recognizing that partnerships among all the groups will benefit, rather than one group trying to solve problems on their own.
  9. While several food robotics companies are struggling, the pizza-preparation automation system from Picnic was able to serve up several hundreds of slices of pizza to attendees over the course of the show. Instead of creating a restaurant or focusing on an individual recipe, Picnic works with concessions operations or pizza franchises/restaurants to create a consistent application of their own recipe. As we have said before, for a “food robot” to be successful, it needs to go beyond the initial novelty factor of a robot creating food, and instead focus on taking a good recipe and applying consistency to the food. Picnic’s approach here seems to be the right one.
  10. Another company taking a new approach is Refraction AI, which was showing its three-wheeled self-driving vehicle aimed at last-mile deliveries. While companies in this space have looked to doing food and grocery delivery vehicles via self-driving cars (such as Nuro), others have focused efforts on putting robots on city sidewalks or on college campuses, which have caused some additional problems. In the case of Refraction, the smaller vehicle operates on the street, but is small enough to where other cars can drive around the vehicle, much like they would with a bicycle delivery person. The company is currently running a pilot program for food deliveries in Ann Arbor, Mich., and we are looking forward to hearing more about them and their successes.

Note: Eugene Demaitre, senior editor of sister site The Robot Report, contributed to this article.