As companies and organizations look to automate their tasks through robotics and other systems, they’re quickly finding that many more tasks still require human intelligence and flexibility. In those cases, human augmentation through the use of robots and powered exoskeletons can assist workers to become more productive, as well as prevent injuries. For companies, these systems can extend the capabilities of an aging workforce, or expand opportunities for workers who are challenged with physically demanding work.
RBR50 2019 honoree Sarcos Robotics continues to lead the charge in developing exoskeleton and robotic systems that help augment a human workforce. Based in Salt Lake City, Sarcos began in the early 1980s as a spinout from the University of Utah, with a legacy of innovation found in applications that range from advanced humanoid robots and dinosaurs at theme parks, to NASA spacesuit-testing equipment, prosthetic limbs, and MEMS sensors. The company said it aims to deploy robots that combine human intelligence, instinct and judgment with the strength, endurance, and precision of machines.
Robotics Business Review spoke with the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO, Ben Wolff, about the growth of robotics and exoskeletons to assist and augment the industrial labor force with their tasks.
New ways to assist workers
Q: We’re seeing a greater interest in exoskeleton technologies being adopted by industrial and manufacturing companies to support workers – what are customers telling you about the drivers behind this growth and interest?
Wolff: There are hundreds of millions of jobs around the world that can’t be automated today because of the complexity or variability of the task, or because of the unstructured nature of the work environment. For businesses and industries focused on continuous improvement, automation of more simple or repetitious tasks puts a spotlight on these tasks that can’t be automated.
With skilled labor shortages around the world and ever-increasing costs associated with occupational injuries, there is tremendous interest in finding new ways to assist workers to be more productive, reduce injuries, extend the capabilities of an aging work force and open the aperture for those that are challenged with physically demanding work.
Q: What technology improvements have been made over the past few years to improve the size, weight, cost, etc., of the exoskeletons themselves?
Wolff: Exoskeletons come in a variety of flavors – powered and unpowered, full-body and partial-body, and those focused on rehabilitation versus those that increase stamina and strength. In our case, we developed a powered, full-body industrial exoskeleton that safely enables humans to exert superhuman strength and stamina. Thanks to improvements over the past several years in the size, weight, power requirements, performance and price of key components, coupled with significant innovations our team has developed, we are now on the cusp of delivering a robust, commercially viable solution that will fundamentally change the way work gets done.
Some of our key technology innovations over the past several years have focused on developing a battery-powered system that (1) can deliver up to eight hours of fully mobile performance on a single charge; (2) is intuitive to use, with minimal training required; and (3) enables a full range of motion without impairing or impeding the operator’s freedom of movement.
Q: Is there a big difference in the interest of customers for powered vs. unpowered exoskeletons? What advantage does each system provide?
Wolff: There are significant differences between powered and unpowered exoskeletons, each with their own distinct applications and market opportunities. For the most part, we see these systems as complementary rather than competitive. The differences are similar to those that you see in other machines or tools that are available in powered and unpowered versions – think of standard versus powered screwdrivers, or bicycles versus motorcycles, or pallet jacks versus forklifts.
The unpowered versions are generally less complex and less expensive, but are usually narrower in range of uses, and more limited in productivity. The same is true for exoskeletons. A powered exoskeleton doesn’t make sense if an unpowered exoskeleton can do the job – but the jobs that unpowered exoskeletons address are more limited, and while they are intended to enhance endurance, they generally are not intended to increase strength, nor are they able to entirely support their own weight and the weight of the payload being lifted by the worker as a powered, full-body exoskeleton can.
Guardian XO coming soon
Q: Sarcos has been awarded several contracts from the U.S. military for its Guardian XO exoskeleton. What do you think is driving interest from this segment of the space?
Wolff: The U.S. military maintains one of the largest and most complex logistics and support operations in the world. Manufacturing, construction, maintenance and repair, transport of weapons, supplies and ammunition, loading and unloading, warehousing, etc., are all an integral part of what our military does on a daily basis to maintain readiness and support our troops in the field.
The military faces the same challenges that our industrial partners have – worker shortages, high economic and social costs of injuries, and the need to do more with limited resources. Forward-thinking military leaders first started publicly talking about the deployment of exoskeletons to address these issues in the mid-1980s, and DARPA started funding our work in 2000. The U.S. military has been our long-term partner, and without their support and the support of Congress, Sarcos wouldn’t be where we are today.
Q: You’ve announced that the Guardian XO is set to launch in early 2020 – how has the development been going for the company, and do any challenges remain?
Wolff: The development of the Guardian XO has been a 20-year effort. We’re now in the home stretch. We are spending a tremendous amount of time focused on performance and safety testing, and continuing to improve every system and subsystem to deliver a product that exceeds our customers’ expectations.
We’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to partner with leading companies from the automobile, aviation, construction, oil & gas, power, and warehousing and logistics industries to ensure that we are designing and delivering a machine that meets their performance and cost objectives. Several of these companies will be testing “alpha” units later this year. We will then incorporate feedback from these alpha customers before we ramp up production next year.
Q: Are there any other markets where you feel that exoskeletons or inspection robots could have a larger impact than it currently does? In other words, are there any untapped markets that are poised for growth?
Wolff: Perhaps the most surprising market opportunity for us – which was counter-intuitive to me – are those industries that have or are in the process of becoming highly automated. I previously assumed that if a company or industry was highly automated, there would be no need for human augmentation.
I was wrong for a couple of reasons. First, I learned that in some industries, increased automation in a plant has actually increased employment, because increased output from an assembly line means an increased need for humans to perform all of the related tasks that can’t be automated. Second, every automated manufacturing plant has raw materials, supplies and components coming in, and finished goods going out.
Every assembly line is a microcosm of the plant. Every warehouse and logistics operation deals with the same issues – items coming in and going out. The greater the diversity of the incoming and outgoing items, the greater the reliance on human intelligence and dexterity. That’s where Sarcos has a unique opportunity to help. We have the opportunity to augment the human workforce to keep pace with automation.
Q: What does it mean to be named to the RBR50?
Wolff: We are very humbled and proud to have been named this year to the RBR50. This list is a who’s who of the most innovative robotics companies that are addressing some of the most challenging opportunities in robotics, with the potential to fundamentally make a meaningful difference in the world. Recognition like this inspires and motivates all of us at Sarcos to keep innovating and pushing the boundaries for what’s possible as we pursue our vision to save lives, reduce injuries, and enhance productivity through human augmentation robotics.