Tag Archives: appearance

#438762 When Robots Enter the World, Who Is ...

Over the last half decade or so, the commercialization of autonomous robots that can operate outside of structured environments has dramatically increased. But this relatively new transition of robotic technologies from research projects to commercial products comes with its share of challenges, many of which relate to the rapidly increasing visibility that these robots have in society.

Whether it's because of their appearance of agency, or because of their history in popular culture, robots frequently inspire people’s imagination. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when it leads to innovative new use cases. And sometimes this is a bad thing, like when it leads to use cases that could be classified as irresponsible or unethical. Can the people selling robots do anything about the latter? And even if they can, should they?

Roboticists understand that robots, fundamentally, are tools. We build them, we program them, and even the autonomous ones are just following the instructions that we’ve coded into them. However, that same appearance of agency that makes robots so compelling means that it may not be clear to people without much experience with or exposure to real robots that a robot itself isn’t inherently good or bad—rather, as a tool, a robot is a reflection of its designers and users.

This can put robotics companies into a difficult position. When they sell a robot to someone, that person can, hypothetically, use the robot in any way they want. Of course, this is the case with every tool, but it’s the autonomous aspect that makes robots unique. I would argue that autonomy brings with it an implied association between a robot and its maker, or in this case, the company that develops and sells it. I’m not saying that this association is necessarily a reasonable one, but I think that it exists, even if that robot has been sold to someone else who has assumed full control over everything it does.

“All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon”
—Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics

Robotics companies are certainly aware of this, because many of them are very careful about who they sell their robots to, and very explicit about what they want their robots to be doing. But once a robot is out in the wild, as it were, how far should that responsibility extend? And realistically, how far can it extend? Should robotics companies be held accountable for what their robots do in the world, or should we accept that once a robot is sold to someone else, responsibility is transferred as well? And what can be done if a robot is being used in an irresponsible or unethical way that could have a negative impact on the robotics community?

For perspective on this, we contacted folks from three different robotics companies, each of which has experience selling distinctive mobile robots to commercial end users. We asked them the same five questions about the responsibility that robotics companies have regarding the robots that they sell, and here’s what they had to say:

Do you have any restrictions on what people can do with your robots? If so, what are they, and if not, why not?

Péter Fankhauser, CEO, ANYbotics:

We closely work together with our customers to make sure that our solution provides the right approach for their problem. Thereby, the target use case is clear from the beginning and we do not work with customers interested in using our robot ANYmal outside the intended target applications. Specifically, we strictly exclude any military or weaponized uses and since the foundation of ANYbotics it is close to our heart to make human work easier, safer, and more enjoyable.

Robert Playter, CEO, Boston Dynamics:

Yes, we have restrictions on what people can do with our robots, which are outlined in our Terms and Conditions of Sale. All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon. Spot, just like any product, must be used in compliance with the law.

Ryan Gariepy, CTO, Clearpath Robotics:

We do have strict restrictions and KYC processes which are based primarily on Canadian export control regulations. They depend on the type of equipment sold as well as where it is going. More generally, we also will not sell or support a robot if we know that it will create an uncontrolled safety hazard or if we have reason to believe that the buyer is unqualified to use the product. And, as always, we do not support using our products for the development of fully autonomous weapons systems.

More broadly, if you sell someone a robot, why should they be restricted in what they can do with it?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: We see the robot less as a simple object but more as an artificial workforce. This implies to us that the usage is closely coupled with the transfer of the robot and both the customer and the provider agree what the robot is expected to do. This approach is supported by what we hear from our customers with an increasing interest to pay for the robots as a service or per use.

Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We’re offering a product for sale. We’re going to do the best we can to stop bad actors from using our technology for harm, but we don’t have the control to regulate every use. That said, we believe that our business will be best served if our technology is used for peaceful purposes—to work alongside people as trusted assistants and remove them from harm’s way. We do not want to see our technology used to cause harm or promote violence. Our restrictions are similar to those of other manufacturers or technology companies that take steps to reduce or eliminate the violent or unlawful use of their products.

Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: Assuming the organization doing the restricting is a private organization and the robot and its software is sold vs. leased or “managed,” there aren't strong legal reasons to restrict use. That being said, the manufacturer likewise has no obligation to continue supporting that specific robot or customer going forward. However, given that we are only at the very edge of how robots will reshape a great deal of society, it is in the best interest for the manufacturer and user to be honest with each other about their respective goals. Right now, you're not only investing in the initial purchase and relationship, you're investing in the promise of how you can help each other succeed in the future.

“If a robot is being used in a way that is irresponsible due to safety: intervene! If it’s unethical: speak up!”
—Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics

What can you realistically do to make sure that people who buy your robots use them in the ways that you intend?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: We maintain a close collaboration with our customers to ensure their success with our solution. So for us, we have refrained from technical solutions to block unintended use.

Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We vet our customers to make sure that their desired applications are things that Spot can support, and are in alignment with our Terms and Conditions of Sale. We’ve turned away customers whose applications aren’t a good match with our technology. If customers misuse our technology, we’re clear in our Terms of Sale that their violations may void our warranty and prevent their robots from being updated, serviced, repaired, or replaced. We may also repossess robots that are not purchased, but leased. Finally, we will refuse future sales to customers that violate our Terms of Sale.

Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: We typically work with our clients ahead of the purchase to make sure their expectations match reality, in particular on aspects like safety, supervisory requirements, and usability. It's far worse to sell a robot that'll sit on a shelf or worse, cause harm, then to not sell a robot at all, so we prefer to reduce the risk of this situation in advance of receiving an order or shipping a robot.

How do you evaluate the merit of edge cases, for example if someone wants to use your robot in research or art that may push the boundaries of what you personally think is responsible or ethical?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: It’s about the dialog, understanding, and figuring out alternatives that work for all involved parties and the earlier you can have this dialog the better.

Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: There’s a clear line between exploring robots in research and art, and using the robot for violent or illegal purposes.

Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: We have sold thousands of robots to hundreds of clients, and I do not recall the last situation that was not covered by a combination of export control and a general evaluation of the client's goals and expectations. I'm sure this will change as robots continue to drop in price and increase in flexibility and usability.

“You're not only investing in the initial purchase and relationship, you're investing in the promise of how you can help each other succeed in the future.”
—Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics

What should roboticists do if we see a robot being used in a way that we feel is unethical or irresponsible?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: If it’s irresponsible due to safety: intervene! If it’s unethical: speak up!

Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We want robots to be beneficial for humanity, which includes the notion of not causing harm. As an industry, we think robots will achieve long-term commercial viability only if people see robots as helpful, beneficial tools without worrying if they’re going to cause harm.

Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: On a one off basis, they should speak to a combination of the user, the supplier or suppliers, the media, and, if safety is an immediate concern, regulatory or government agencies. If the situation in question risks becoming commonplace and is not being taken seriously, they should speak up more generally in appropriate forums—conferences, industry groups, standards bodies, and the like.

As more and more robots representing different capabilities become commercially available, these issues are likely to come up more frequently. The three companies we talked to certainly don’t represent every viewpoint, and we did reach out to other companies who declined to comment. But I would think (I would hope?) that everyone in the robotics community can agree that robots should be used in a way that makes people’s lives better. What “better” means in the context of art and research and even robots in the military may not always be easy to define, and inevitably there’ll be disagreement as to what is ethical and responsible, and what isn’t.

We’ll keep on talking about it, though, and do our best to help the robotics community to continue growing and evolving in a positive way. Let us know what you think in the comments. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438747 The appearance of robots affects our ...

'Moralities of Intelligent Machines' is a project that investigates people's attitudes towards moral choices made by artificial intelligence. In the latest study completed under the project, study participants read short narratives where either a robot, a somewhat humanoid robot known as iRobot, a robot with a strong humanoid appearance called iClooney or a human being encounters a moral problem along the lines of the trolley dilemma, making a specific decision. The participants were also shown images of these agents, after which they assessed the morality of their decisions. The study was funded by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation and the Academy of Finland. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437869 Video Friday: Japan’s Gundam Robot ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ACRA 2020 – December 8-10, 2020 – [Online]
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Another BIG step for Japan’s Gundam project.

[ Gundam Factory ]

We present an interactive design system that allows users to create sculpting styles and fabricate clay models using a standard 6-axis robot arm. Given a general mesh as input, the user iteratively selects sub-areas of the mesh through decomposition and embeds the design expression into an initial set of toolpaths by modifying key parameters that affect the visual appearance of the sculpted surface finish. We demonstrate the versatility of our approach by designing and fabricating different sculpting styles over a wide range of clay models.

[ Disney Research ]

China’s Chang’e-5 completed the drilling, sampling and sealing of lunar soil at 04:53 BJT on Wednesday, marking the first automatic sampling on the Moon, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced Wednesday.

[ CCTV ]

Red Hat’s been putting together an excellent documentary on Willow Garage and ROS, and all five parts have just been released. We posted Part 1 a little while ago, so here’s Part 2 and Part 3.

Parts 4 and 5 are at the link below!

[ Red Hat ]

Congratulations to ANYbotics on a well-deserved raise!

ANYbotics has origins in the Robotic Systems Lab at ETH Zurich, and ANYmal’s heritage can be traced back at least as far as StarlETH, which we first met at ICRA 2013.

[ ANYbotics ]

Most conventional robots are working with 0.05-0.1mm accuracy. Such accuracy requires high-end components like low-backlash gears, high-resolution encoders, complicated CNC parts, powerful motor drives, etc. Those in combination end up an expensive solution, which is either unaffordable or unnecessary for many applications. As a result, we found the Apicoo Robotics to provide our customers solutions with a much lower cost and higher stability.

[ Apicoo Robotics ]

The Skydio 2 is an incredible drone that can take incredible footage fully autonomously, but it definitely helps if you do incredible things in incredible places.

[ Skydio ]

Jueying is the first domestic sensitive quadruped robot for industry applications and scenarios. It can coordinate (replace) humans to reach any place that can be reached. It has superior environmental adaptability, excellent dynamic balance capabilities and precise Environmental perception capabilities. By carrying functional modules for different application scenarios in the safe load area, the mobile superiority of the quadruped robot can be organically integrated with the commercialization of functional modules, providing smart factories, smart parks, scene display and public safety application solutions.

[ DeepRobotics ]

We have developed semi-autonomous quadruped robot, called LASER-D (Legged-Agile-Smart-Efficient Robot for Disinfection) for performing disinfection in cluttered environments. The robot is equipped with a spray-based disinfection system and leverages the body motion to controlling the spray action without the need for an extra stabilization mechanism. The system includes an image processing capability to verify disinfected regions with high accuracy. This system allows the robot to successfully carry out effective disinfection tasks while safely traversing through cluttered environments, climb stairs/slopes, and navigate on slippery surfaces.

[ USC Viterbi ]

We propose the “multi-vision hand”, in which a number of small high-speed cameras are mounted on the robot hand of a common 7 degrees-of-freedom robot. Also, we propose visual-servoing control by using a multi-vision system that combines the multi-vision hand and external fixed high-speed cameras. The target task was ball catching motion, which requires high-speed operation. In the proposed catching control, the catch position of the ball, which is estimated by the external fixed high-speed cameras, is corrected by the multi-vision hand in real-time.

More details available through IROS on-demand.

[ Namiki Laboratory ]

Shunichi Kurumaya wrote in to share his work on PneuFinger, a pneumatically actuated compliant robotic gripping system.

[ Nakamura Lab ]

Thanks Shunichi!

Motivated by insights into the human teaching process, we introduce a method for incorporating unstructured natural language into imitation learning. At training time, the expert can provide demonstrations along with verbal descriptions in order to describe the underlying intent, e.g., “Go to the large green bowl’’. The training process, then, interrelates the different modalities to encode the correlations between language, perception, and motion. The resulting language-conditioned visuomotor policies can be conditioned at run time on new human commands and instructions, which allows for more fine-grained control over the trained policies while also reducing situational ambiguity.

[ ASU ]

Thanks Heni!

Gita is on sale for the holidays for only $2,000.

[ Gita ]

This video introduces a computational approach for routing thin artificial muscle actuators through hyperelastic soft robots, in order to achieve a desired deformation behavior. Provided with a robot design, and a set of example deformations, we continuously co-optimize the routing of actuators, and their actuation, to approximate example deformations as closely as possible.

[ Disney Research ]

Researchers and mountain rescuers in Switzerland are making huge progress in the field of autonomous drones as the technology becomes more in-demand for global search-and-rescue operations.

[ SWI ]

This short clip of the Ghost Robotics V60 features an interesting, if awkward looking, righting behavior at the end.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Europe’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has a younger ’sibling’, ExoMy. The blueprints and software for this mini-version of the full-size Mars explorer are available for free so that anyone can 3D print, assemble and program their own ExoMy.

[ ESA ]

The holiday season is here, and with the added impact of Covid-19 consumer demand is at an all-time high. Berkshire Grey is the partner that today’s leading organizations turn to when it comes to fulfillment automation.

[ Berkshire Grey ]

Until very recently, the vast majority of studies and reports on the use of cargo drones for public health were almost exclusively focused on the technology. The driving interest from was on the range that these drones could travel, how much they could carry and how they worked. Little to no attention was placed on the human side of these projects. Community perception, community engagement, consent and stakeholder feedback were rarely if ever addressed. This webinar presents the findings from a very recent study that finally sheds some light on the human side of drone delivery projects.

[ WeRobotics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437851 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Dog ...

Boston Dynamics has been fielding questions about when its robots are going to go on sale and how much they’ll cost for at least a dozen years now. I can say this with confidence, because that’s how long I’ve been a robotics journalist, and I’ve been pestering them about it the entire time. But it’s only relatively recently that the company started to make a concerted push away from developing robots exclusively for the likes of DARPA into platforms with more commercial potential, starting with a compact legged robot called Spot, first introduced in 2016.

Since then, we’ve been following closely as Spot has gone from a research platform to a product, and today, Boston Dynamics is announcing the final step in that process: commercial availability. You can now order a Spot Explorer Kit from the Boston Dynamics online store for US $74,500 (plus tax), shipping included, with delivery in 6 to 8 weeks. FINALLY!

Over the past 10 months or so, Boston Dynamics has leased Spot robots to carefully selected companies, research groups, and even a few individuals as part of their early adopter program—that’s where all of the clips in the video below came from. While there are over 100 Spots out in the world right now, getting one of them has required convincing Boston Dynamics up front that you knew more or less exactly what you wanted to do and how you wanted to do it. If you’re a big construction company or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or Adam Savage, that’s all well and good, but for other folks who think that a Spot could be useful for them somehow and want to give it a shot, this new availability provides a fewer-strings attached opportunity to do some experimentation with the robot.

There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in that video, but we were told that the one thing that really stood out to the folks at Boston Dynamics was a 2-second clip that you can see on the left-hand side of the screen from 0:19 to 0:21. In it, Spot is somehow managing to walk across a spider web of rebar without getting tripped up, at faster than human speed. This isn’t something that Spot was specifically programmed to do, and in fact the Spot User Guide specifically identifies “rebar mesh” as an unsafe operating environment. But the robot just handles it, and that’s a big part of what makes Spot so useful—its ability to deal with (almost) whatever you can throw at it.

Before you get too excited, Boston Dynamics is fairly explicit that the current license for the robot is intended for commercial use, and the company specifically doesn’t want people to be just using it at home for fun. We know this because we asked (of course we asked), and they told us “we specifically don’t want people to just be using it at home for fun.” Drat. You can still buy one as an individual, but you have to promise that you’ll follow the terms of use and user guidelines, and it sounds like using a robot in your house might be the second-fastest way to invalidate your warranty:


Not being able to get Spot to play with your kids may be disappointing, but for those of you with the sort of kids who are also students, the good news is that Boston Dynamics has carved out a niche for academic institutions, which can buy Spot at a discounted price. And if you want to buy a whole pack of Spots, there’s a bulk discount for Enterprise users as well.

What do you get for $74,500? All this!

Spot robot
Spot battery (2x)
Spot charger
Tablet controller and charger
Robot case for storage and transportation

Photo: Boston Dynamics

The basic package includes the robot, two batteries, charger, a tablet controller, and a storage case.

You can view detailed specs here.

So is $75k a lot of money for a robot like Spot, or not all that much? We don’t have many useful points of comparison, partially because it’s not clear to what extent other pre-commercial quadrupedal robots (like ANYmal or Aliengo) share capabilities and features with Spot. For more perspective on Spot’s price tag, we spoke to Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics.

IEEE Spectrum: Why is Spot so affordable?

Michael Perry: The main goal of selling the robot at this stage is to try to get it into the hands of as many application developers as possible, so that we can learn from the community what the biggest driver of value is for Spot. As a platform, unlocking the value of an ecosystem is our core focus right now.

Spectrum: Why is Spot so expensive?

Perry: Expensive is relative, but compared to the initial prototypes of Spot, we’ve been able to drop down the cost pretty significantly. One key thing has been designing it for robustness—we’ve put hundreds and hundreds of hours on the robot to make sure that it’s able to be successful when it falls, or when it has an electrostatic discharge. We’ve made sure that it’s able to perceive a wide variety of environments that are difficult for traditional vision-based sensors to handle. A lot of that engineering is baked into the core product so that you don’t have to worry about the mobility or robotic side of the equation, you can just focus on application development.

Photos: Boston Dynamics

Accessories for Spot include [clockwise from top left]: Spot GXP with additional ports for payload integration; Spot CAM with panorama camera and advanced comms; Spot CAM+ with pan-tilt-zoom camera for inspections; Spot EAP with lidar to enhance autonomy on large sites; Spot EAP+ with Spot CAM camera plus lidar; and Spot CORE for additional processing power.

The $75k that you’ll pay for the Spot Explorer Kit, it’s important to note, is just the base price for the robot. As with other things that fall into this price range (like a luxury car), there are all kinds of fun ways to drive that cost up with accessories, although for Spot, some of those accessories will be necessary for many (if not most) applications. For example, a couple of expansion ports to make it easier to install your own payloads on Spot will run you $1,275. An additional battery is $4,620. And if you want to really get some work done, the Enhanced Autonomy Package (with 360 cameras, lights, better comms, and a Velodyne VLP-16) will set you back an additional $34,570. If you were hoping for an arm, you’ll have to wait until the end of the year.

Each Spot also includes a year’s worth of software updates and a warranty, although the standard warranty just covers “defects related to materials and workmanship” not “I drove my robot off a cliff” or “I tried to take my robot swimming.” For that sort of thing (user error) to be covered, you’ll need to upgrade to the $12,000 Spot CARE premium service plan to cover your robot for a year as long as you don’t subject it to willful abuse, which both of those examples I just gave probably qualify as.

While we’re on the subject of robot abuse, Boston Dynamics has very sensibly devoted a substantial amount of the Spot User Guide to help new users understand how they should not be using their robot, in order to “lessen the risk of serious injury, death, or robot and other property damage.” According to the guide, some things that could cause Spot to fall include holes, cliffs, slippery surfaces (like ice and wet grass), and cords. Spot’s sensors also get confused by “transparent, mirrored, or very bright obstacles,” and the guide specifically says Spot “may crash into glass doors and windows.” Also this: “Spot cannot predict trajectories of moving objects. Do not operate Spot around moving objects such as vehicles, children, or pets.”

We should emphasize that this is all totally reasonable, and while there are certainly a lot of things to be aware of, it’s frankly astonishing that these are the only things that Boston Dynamics explicitly warns users against. Obviously, not every potentially unsafe situation or thing is described above, but the point is that Boston Dynamics is willing to say to new users, “here’s your robot, go do stuff with it” without feeling the need to hold their hand the entire time.

There’s one more thing to be aware of before you decide to buy a Spot, which is the following:

“All orders will be subject to Boston Dynamics’ Terms and Conditions of Sale which require the beneficial use of its robots.”

Specifically, this appears to mean that you aren’t allowed to (or supposed to) use the robot in a way that could hurt living things, or “as a weapon, or to enable any weapon.” The conditions of sale also prohibit using the robot for “any illegal or ultra-hazardous purpose,” and there’s some stuff in there about it not being cool to use Spot for “nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons proliferation, or development of missile technology,” which seems weirdly specific.

“Once you make a technology more broadly available, the story of it starts slipping out of your hands. Our hope is that ahead of time we’re able to clearly articulate the beneficial uses of the robot in environments where we think the robot has a high potential to reduce the risk to people, rather than potentially causing harm.”
—Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics

I’m very glad that Boston Dynamics is being so upfront about requiring that Spot is used beneficially. However, it does put the company in a somewhat challenging position now that these robots are being sold. Boston Dynamics can (and will) perform some amount of due-diligence before shipping a Spot, but ultimately, once the robots are in someone else’s hands, there’s only so much that BD can do.

Spectrum: Why is beneficial use important to Boston Dynamics?

Perry: One of the key things that we’ve highlighted many times in our license and terms of use is that we don’t want to see the robot being used in any way that inflicts physical harm on people or animals. There are philosophical reasons for that—I think all of us don’t want to see our technology used in a way that would hurt people. But also from a business perspective, robots are really terrible at conveying intention. In order for the robot to be helpful long-term, it has to be trusted as a piece of technology. So rather than looking at a robot and wondering, “is this something that could potentially hurt me,” we want people to think “this is a robot that’s here to help me.” To the extent that people associate Boston Dynamics with cutting edge robots, we think that this is an important stance for the rollout of our first commercial product. If we find out that somebody’s violated our terms of use, their warranty is invalidated, we won’t repair their product, and we have a licensing timeout that would prevent them from accessing their robot after that timeout has expired. It’s a remediation path, but we do think that it’s important to at least provide that as something that helps enforce our position on use of our technology.

It’s very important to keep all of this in context: Spot is a tool. It’s got some autonomy and the appearance of agency, but it’s still just doing what people tell it to do, even if those things might be unsafe. If you read through the user guide, it’s clear how much of an effort Boston Dynamics is making to try to convey the importance of safety to Spot users—and ultimately, barring some unforeseen and catastrophic software or hardware issues, safety is about the users, rather than Boston Dynamics or Spot itself. I bring this up because as we start seeing more and more Spots doing things without Boston Dynamics watching over them quite so closely, accidents are likely inevitable. Spot might step on someone’s foot. It might knock someone over. If Spot was perfectly safe, it wouldn’t be useful, and we have to acknowledge that its impressive capabilities come with some risks, too.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Each Spot includes a year’s worth of software updates and a warranty, although the standard warranty just covers “defects related to materials and workmanship” not “I drove my robot off a cliff.”

Now that Spot is on the market for real, we’re excited to see who steps up and orders one. Depending on who the potential customer is, Spot could either seem like an impossibly sophisticated piece of technology that they’d never be able to use, or a magical way of solving all of their problems overnight. In reality, it’s of course neither of those things. For the former (folks with an idea but without a lot of robotics knowledge or experience), Spot does a lot out of the box, but BD is happy to talk with people and facilitate connections with partners who might be able to integrate specific software and hardware to get Spot to do a unique task. And for the latter (who may also be folks with an idea but without a lot of robotics knowledge or experience), BD’s Perry offers a reminder Spot is not Rosie the Robot, and would be equally happy to talk about what the technology is actually capable of doing.

Looking forward a bit, we asked Perry whether Spot’s capabilities mean that customers are starting to think beyond using robots to simply replace humans, and are instead looking at them as a way of enabling a completely different way of getting things done.

Spectrum: Do customers interested in Spot tend to think of it as a way of replacing humans at a specific task, or as a system that can do things that humans aren’t able to do?

Perry: There are what I imagine as three levels of people understanding the robot applications. Right now, we’re at level one, where you take a person out of this dangerous, dull job, and put a robot in. That’s the entry point. The second level is, using the robot, can we increase the production of that task? For example, take site documentation on a construction site—right now, people do 360 image capture of a site maybe once a week, and they might do a laser scan of the site once per project. At the second level, the question is, what if you were able to get that data collection every day, or multiple times a day? What kinds of benefits would that add to your process? To continue the construction example, the third level would be, how could we completely redesign this space now that we know that this type of automation is available? To take one example, there are some things that we cannot physically build because it’s too unsafe for people to be a part of that process, but if you were to apply robotics to that process, then you could potentially open up a huge envelope of design that has been inaccessible to people.

To order a Spot of your very own, visit shop.bostondynamics.com.

A version of this post appears in the August 2020 print issue as “$74,500 Will Fetch You a Spot.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437645 How Robots Became Essential Workers in ...

Photo: Sivaram V/Reuters

A robot, developed by Asimov Robotics to spread awareness about the coronavirus, holds a tray with face masks and sanitizer.

As the coronavirus emergency exploded into a full-blown pandemic in early 2020, forcing countless businesses to shutter, robot-making companies found themselves in an unusual situation: Many saw a surge in orders. Robots don’t need masks, can be easily disinfected, and, of course, they don’t get sick.

An army of automatons has since been deployed all over the world to help with the crisis: They are monitoring patients, sanitizing hospitals, making deliveries, and helping frontline medical workers reduce their exposure to the virus. Not all robots operate autonomously—many, in fact, require direct human supervision, and most are limited to simple, repetitive tasks. But robot makers say the experience they’ve gained during this trial-by-fire deployment will make their future machines smarter and more capable. These photos illustrate how robots are helping us fight this pandemic—and how they might be able to assist with the next one.


Photo: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

A squad of robots serves as the first line of defense against person-to-person transmission at a medical center in Kigali, Rwanda. Patients walking into the facility get their temperature checked by the machines, which are equipped with thermal cameras atop their heads. Developed by UBTech Robotics, in China, the robots also use their distinctive appearance—they resemble characters out of a Star Wars movie—to get people’s attention and remind them to wash their hands and wear masks.

Photo: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

To speed up COVID-19 testing, a team of Danish doctors and engineers at the University of Southern Denmark and at Lifeline Robotics is developing a fully automated swab robot. It uses computer vision and machine learning to identify the perfect target spot inside the person’s throat; then a robotic arm with a long swab reaches in to collect the sample—all done with a swiftness and consistency that humans can’t match. In this photo, one of the creators, Esben Østergaard, puts his neck on the line to demonstrate that the robot is safe.

Photo: University of Southern Denmark

After six of its doctors became infected with the coronavirus, the Sassarese hospital in Sardinia, Italy, tightened its safety measures. It also brought in the robots. The machines, developed by UVD Robots, use lidar to navigate autonomously. Each bot carries an array of powerful short-wavelength ultraviolet-C lights that destroy the genetic material of viruses and other pathogens after a few minutes of exposure. Now there is a spike in demand for UV-disinfection robots as hospitals worldwide deploy them to sterilize intensive care units and operating theaters.

Photo: UVD Robots


In medical facilities, an ideal role for robots is taking over repetitive chores so that nurses and physicians can spend their time doing more important tasks. At Shenzhen Third People’s Hospital, in China, a robot called Aimbot drives down the hallways, enforcing face-mask and social-distancing rules and spraying disinfectant. At a hospital near Austin, Texas, a humanoid robot developed by Diligent Robotics fetches supplies and brings them to patients’ rooms. It repeats this task day and night, tirelessly, allowing the hospital staff to spend more time interacting with patients.

Photos, left: Diligent Robotics; Right: UBTech Robotics

Nurses and doctors at Circolo Hospital in Varese, in northern Italy—the country’s hardest-hit region—use robots as their avatars, enabling them to check on their patients around the clock while minimizing exposure and conserving protective equipment. The robots, developed by Chinese firm Sanbot, are equipped with cameras and microphones and can also access patient data like blood oxygen levels. Telepresence robots, originally designed for offices, are becoming an invaluable tool for medical workers treating highly infectious diseases like COVID-19, reducing the risk that they’ll contract the pathogen they’re fighting against.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images


Photo: Zipline

Authorities in several countries attempted to use drones to enforce lockdowns and social-distancing rules, but the effectiveness of such measures remains unclear. A better use of drones was for making deliveries. In the United States, startup Zipline deployed its fixed-wing autonomous aircraft to connect two medical facilities 17 kilometers apart. For the staff at the Huntersville Medical Center, in North Carolina, masks, gowns, and gloves literally fell from the skies. The hope is that drones like Zipline’s will one day be able to deliver other kinds of critical materials, transport test samples, and distribute drugs and vaccines.

Photos: Zipline

It’s not quite a robot takeover, but the streets and sidewalks of dozens of cities around the world have seen a proliferation of hurrying wheeled machines. Delivery robots are now in high demand as online orders continue to skyrocket.

In Hamburg, the six-wheeled robots developed by Starship Technologies navigate using cameras, GPS, and radar to bring groceries to customers.

Photo: Christian Charisius/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

In Medellín, Colombia, a startup called Rappi deployed a fleet of robots, built by Kiwibot, to deliver takeout to people in lockdown.

Photo: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

China’s JD.com, one of the country’s largest e-commerce companies, is using 20 robots to transport goods in Changsha, Hunan province; each vehicle has 22 separate compartments, which customers unlock using face authentication.

Photos: TPG/Getty Images

Robots can’t replace real human interaction, of course, but they can help people feel more connected at a time when meetings and other social activities are mostly on hold.

In Ostend, Belgium, ZoraBots brought one of its waist-high robots, equipped with cameras, microphones, and a screen, to a nursing home, allowing residents like Jozef Gouwy to virtually communicate with loved ones despite a ban on in-person visits.

Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

In Manila, nearly 200 high school students took turns “teleporting” into a tall wheeled robot, developed by the school’s robotics club, to walk on stage during their graduation ceremony.

Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

And while Japan’s Chiba Zoological Park was temporarily closed due to the pandemic, the zoo used an autonomous robotic vehicle called RakuRo, equipped with 360-degree cameras, to offer virtual tours to children quarantined at home.

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Offices, stores, and medical centers are adopting robots as enforcers of a new coronavirus code.

At Fortis Hospital in Bangalore, India, a robot called Mitra uses a thermal camera to perform a preliminary screening of patients.

Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

In Tunisia, the police use a tanklike robot to patrol the streets of its capital city, Tunis, verifying that citizens have permission to go out during curfew hours.

Photo: Khaled Nasraoui/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

And in Singapore, the Bishan-Ang Moh Kio Park unleashed a Spot robot dog, developed by Boston Dynamics, to search for social-distancing violators. Spot won’t bark at them but will rather play a recorded message reminding park-goers to keep their distance.

Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

This article appears in the October 2020 print issue as “How Robots Became Essential Workers.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots