Why Human-Controlled, Force-Multiplying Robots Are the Future of Work on Earth

Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff argues that highly mobile, dexterous robots will transform industry and disaster response

5 min read
Sarcos GT is a highly mobile, dexterous human-controlled robotic system
Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff argues that highly mobile, dexterous robotic systems that rely on human intelligence to operate will transform industry and disaster response.
Photo: Sarcos Robotics

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

When most people think of robots, they picture an R2-D2-like droid, providing critical information to assist humans and courageously rescuing them from dangerous situations. While we are, in my view, decades away from having robots that can function like a “Star Wars" character due to the limitations of artificial intelligence, a new class of robots that are mobile, dexterous, and capable across multiple operational regimes will soon be available to augment human performance.

This will happen through a combination of human intelligence with machine strength and precision. In this symbiotic relationship, the multi-tasking robots rely on humans for direction while simultaneously safeguarding them from dangerous environments and tasks. These robotic “guardians" are the future of work on Earth and, yes, in space, too.

The Sarcos GT Big-Arm Robot is a human-controlled, force-multiplying system.The Sarcos GT Big-Arm Robot is a human-controlled, force-multiplying system.Image: Sarcos Robotics

We are at a point in history where decades of research and development coupled with ever-improving technological performance and lower component costs are combining to make yesterday's science fiction a reality. Imagine a machine that is your personal proxy, controlled by you, leveraging your intelligence, knowledge, instincts, intuition, and judgment while able to physically perform in the same manner as your own body, but safely, and with super-human strength, endurance, and precision. This vision is at the core of the Guardian robot systems concept developed at my company, Sarcos Robotics, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sarcos began its quest to produce commercially viable robotic systems more than a decade and a half ago. Following years of experimentation, Sarcos concluded that successful robots required three key elements:

  1. An intuitive system that allows the operator's reflexes and instincts to control the robot.
  2. Sensory feedback that enables the operator to see, hear and feel what the robot sees, hears and feels.
  3. An onboard power source that enables hours of energetically autonomous operation (i.e., eliminating the power tether).

Sarcos has addressed these requirements through the development of robots that are inspired by the human body, incorporating kinematic equivalency, true force and position feedback information, energy saving techniques borrowed from nature, and sophisticated control strategies.

While robots can be used in many industrial environments, Sarcos believes there's one particular area where human-controlled robotic systems could play a valuable role: disaster response. Robots like the Guardian can be deployed to mitigate the loss of life and property both during and following a disaster.

For example, Sarcos' Guardian S—a versatile snake robot—and Guardian GT system could be used in a plant damaged by an earthquake to turn off valves, remove combustible materials, and search for people that might be trapped in the facility. After a disaster, the Guardian GT can be used to dismantle and clear debris, search for, contain and transport hazardous waste, and repair damaged structures.

Sarcos snake robotThe Sarcos S is a snake robot that can negotiate stairs and, thanks to its magnetized body, can also climb vertical metal surfaces.Photo: Sarcos Robotics

With these objectives in mind, Sarcos has created a line of robotic systems that are well-suited to hazardous cleanup scenarios. The Sarcos Guardian GT is unique in its ability to perform tasks that require both dexterity and the ability to lift and transport heavy loads. As an example, the Guardian GT has been demonstrated in scenarios that are consistent with those at radioactive sites, including the use of off-the-shelf power tools to dismantle and clear debris and the precise disassembly and removal of motor control consoles. The Guardian GT is also capable of performing tasks like turning valves and lifting, transporting, and emptying large containers.

The Guardian GT Big-Arm Robot was born out of Sarcos' 30-plus year legacy and leadership in dexterous robotics and kinematics. It is a human-controlled, force-multiplying robotic system with one or two highly dexterous arms mounted on a tracked or wheeled base, allowing a single operator to do more, safely. The dual-armed system lifts payloads up to 454 kilograms, or 1,000 lbs (227 kg, or 500 lbs, in each arm). This enables the operator to move, transport, and position heavy items, and reduces the risk of personal injury. The Guardian GT can often do tasks in minutes that would typically take teams of workers hours or days to complete, while keeping humans out of harm's way.

Sarcos GT's robotic arms can lift 1,000 poundsSarcos GT's dual-armed system can lift payloads up to 454 kilograms, or 1,000 lbs.Photo: Sarcos Robotics

So, what are the key capabilities that we think make the Guardian GT unlike any other robotics solution available today?

  • Intuitive to use: The Guardian GT's 2.1-meter arm boasts 7 degrees of freedom, plus a task set-specific end-effector that allows the operator to reach objects 2 meters in front and to the sides of the mobile platform. These arms act as a natural extension of the operator's own arms and are kinematically equivalent to the human body so that the GT's arms move in the same direction, with the same speed and at the same time, as the human operator's movements. The system uses Sarcos' proprietary high-fidelity force-reflection technology, making the operator feel the scaled forces experienced by the robot arms, even if the system is tele-operated from miles away. As a result, the Sarcos GT's system is intuitive, robust, and safe to operate even in dangerous or hazardous environments.
  • Highly dexterous: The Guardian GT can execute an almost limitless number of dexterous tasks such as utilizing off-the-shelf power tools to perform mission-specific functions like cutting, grinding and finishing, water-jet cutting, cleaning, and joining. It can also acquire and empty a disposal bin, turn valves, push buttons, place pipes for connection, and assemble large pipe flanges on to mating flanges with studs.
  • Autonomous power for extended operations: The GT is autonomously powered, using batteries, diesel fuel, or propane for the energy source, allowing it to be truly mobile, with 7 hours or more of continuous operation.

Robots like the Guardian GT are the way of the future for a host of industries like manufacturing, construction, logistics, power generation, hazardous cleanup, and shipbuilding, among others, because they will enable the efficient completion of tasks previously not possible due to safety concerns for humans. No other mobile machine or robot on the planet allows operators to lift to 0.45-metric-ton and perform highly dexterous tasks like the Guardian GT does, making it in a class of its own to improve safety and enhance productivity.

The Guardian GT is in development and due to its unique capabilities and functions, it is made to each customer's exacting specifications. We look forward to seeing what these robots will be accomplishing in different sites all over the world in coming years.

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