CES2023: Meet the robots making the leap from stage to workplace
Remember Asimo? Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility was a human-looking robot which was wheeled around trade show stages in the early 2000s waving, playing football and serving drinks. The problem was – bar the odd high profile public appearance – the 4ft 3inch robot never really made it beyond the lab.
Honda finally ceased production of its bot five years ago, in favour of focussing on more practical applications, redirecting the technology developed during the prototype’s lifespan to other projects.
When you ask anyone working in robotics what the main challenges are today, their focus is on moving robots out of a confined environment and into the real world, where they can perform repeatable tasks in an automated way that is both safe and cost-effective.
According to Bernt Øivind Børnich, a robotics engineer and cofounder of Halodi Robotics, products like Asimo, which are human-like and can wave and talk, are not really robots “because a robot is an automator – it automates work. And if you can’t automate physical labour, you’re not really a robot”.
There are also non-human industry robots of course, of the type of which have been effectively used by Amazon to lift and sort packages for years – which are both capable and affordable, but, as Børnich points out, “not safe”.
He adds: “Whenever they’re picking up something, there’s a pattern – they move quickly and precisely, and then they almost stop, and then they move again. This is because, when moving, the energy in the system is so high that if the robot touches anything, either the robot breaks or whatever they’re touching breaks.”
While factory robots are made safe in a controlled environment, around trained personnel, the engineer points out that there are still safety barriers that prevent robots from entering the wider market with more general interactions.
Speaking with Børnich at CES this year, he tells me that Halodi’s mission is “to solve the global labour shortage through using robots to be able to do tasks in human environments”.
And the firm is further than many in achieving this goal, having already made in-roads in the enterprise security market – working with ADT for the past two years, with some of the security firm’s biggest customers on year-long pilot trial.
It’s on ADT’s CES booth that I meet with Børnich, where he explains what’s unique about Halodi’s own human sized 5ft 9inch, 13 and a half stone robot, Eve, which claims to operate silently and autonomously on two wheels.
The problem with Asimo, Børnich explains, was that it couldn’t deal with unidentified surroundings.
“And that’s not an AI problem, that’s a mechanical problem.”
He explains: “We humans are built to minimise energy. When we move, even though we are quite strong, we have very little energy. We use very similar systems to human muscle fibre in Eve – synthetic fibre threads that are shared between a lot of our actuators to move the robot. And we do that together with very-low-speed motors that have very high torque, and very low weight.
“Eve has about three times more power to weight than anything you can buy commercially off the shelf in that size, so it’s really a game changer,” he adds.
To achieve this movement the firm had to explore the best way to design these electric motors through simulation, carried out on simulation software by Ansys and other vendors.
The resulting technology – which totals 24 motors – has been trademarked as “Direct Force Control” by Halodi and has been carefully tested on computers as well as through real world tests.
To speed up the process from the lab to a real world environment, Halodi became a member of Ansys’s start up programme, which makes its high grade industrial software accessible to start ups working on innovative engineering projects.
Bots on patrol
To understand how the bot operates Børnich describes the work its Eve model is currently doing for ADT’s customers.
“A typical customer for us is a very large enterprise customer like the Department of Defence – they have huge building areas that they need to control and you take a fleet of 10 robots and they are able to walk autonomously around the building – they can open heavy spring loaded doors, they can take the elevator and patrol these building autonomously.
“There’s a [human] guard who sits centrally and looks at what’s going on with all the robots managing the fleet and then if something actually happens that person can ‘teleport into the robot’ [take it over virtually] and through our VR mode they can perform tasks as if they were there. And when you move [thanks to an expressive API] the bot can track your body so they would move exactly like the person controlling them.
“This becomes a powerful tool that helps you leverage your resources. It means one guard can cover what used to require ten guards. But you still need to use the humans for some decision- making and as a fall-back if the autonomy fails,” he explains.
Børnich adds that tasks which have caught the robot out have been quite simple but unexpected ones that they are able to train the robot to adapt to.
“Someone has used a shoe or a bag to prop a door open that needs to be closed at all times and the alarm goes off because it’s supposed to be a secure zone. In this case the operator removes the bag and another robot closes the door. And next time we retrain it so it knows how to close doors in this way.”
The battery life of each bot deployed is four to six hours – but they have 10 minute charging breaks – the same length of time a regular guard might take a comfort break – and work on rotation, meaning they are almost always running fully charged.
While ADT has been the firm’s main enterprise partner to date, Halodi did not design the bot to be task-specific and the hope is to enter other verticals in 2024, including healthcare, homecare and logistics.
Maybe because of its design and human-like movements [it was being controlled in avatar mode on the show floor] I was surprised at the amount connection I felt when I was permitted to give Eve a ‘high five’.
But presumably in care facilities or at home where the Wi-Fi might not be as strong, the bot would need to operate independently more often.
Børnich hopes that, through the use of AI, they will be able to train such bots become ‘independent agents doing useful labour’ – but will they move in such a human-like way when they’re not being controlled by one?
Halodi aims to have between 150 and 300 robots out in the field this year, and an upgrade is on the way. Børnich promises that the new model is going to be “slightly slimmer and with two legs”.
“But you want to see that it’s a robot and not a human,” he adds, “we don’t have a goal to make them look identical – just to be as functional.”
Spot to Go1
Because robotics is such a nascent technology (in terms of real world applications, at least), many of the companies involved operate independently from each other and there are machines working off incompatible operating systems and platforms.
But what if you want to pick and choose how you make up your fleet? You may require a drone for some tasks, working alongside a quadruped or other model made by a different manufacturer. How far away are we from getting these models to talk with each other?
At CES, Spanish firm Alisys – a technology partner of Vodafone, Boston Dynamics, Softbank Robotics, Google, IBM and Cisco – was demonstrating a web-based ‘teleoperation platform’ which claims to unify and coordinate work between people, robots, autonomous devices and IoT.
Still in the R&D stage, the platform is working on several proof of concepts that promise to solve some very real challenges involving robotic deployment – as the firm’s business development director, Jorgina Díaz Torres, explains:
“The industry needs a platform to unify all these different softwares, operating systems and coding…a platform that enables us to control robots and their missions, deploy software, deploy security policy and manage robots and their payloads (such as sensors etc.). If we can collect all this data in real time then it will enable us to make better decisions,” she reasons.
Visitors to Alisys CES booth were able to watch a live demo of the platform between Unitree Robotics’ Go1 robot and a remote teleoperation of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, located at the company’s offices in Madrid.
Visitors could control these two quadrupeds, which are typically used in used in hazardous environments such as nuclear power plants.
“Right now we’re are doing a lot of work with end customers – in hazardous environments as well as police surveillance, army and border control because we need to know and understand the requirements of the customers to develop the software,” explains Torres.
“We aim to offer a commercial product that makes it easier for anyone to work with robotics. That’s why we’re thinking about a web interface, we want it to be easier, more user friendly.
She explains that right now Boston Dynamic’s Spot – which is one of the best quad robots in the world in terms of movement – comes with its own pain points.
“You need to connect the robot to the Wi-Fi and then you have to go behind the robot to manage it. We need to remove all of this,” she says.
To this end, Torres reveals that the company has partnered with Spanish 5G telecom operator Telefonica on the first proof-of-concept in Europe using a standalone private network and edge computing for a surveillance use case at a university in the north of Spain.
“The operator was a normal security guard working for a security company – not a techie. We wanted to prove that the platform was easy to use for everyone, he only had one day’s training.”
Working for a firm that has tried out many of the leading robots on its platform, Torres is also keenly aware of their limitations.
“We need better hardware. Now it’s ok but it’s far from what we require to solve real life problems. And in a few years, we will have it. Boston Dynamics, Ghost Robotics – these companies are pushing hard. We will have good hardware in a couple of years.”
She adds: “We also currently need a lot of software. Each model comes with its own intelligence but in order to adopt the robots for specific use cases software needs to be developed to manage fleets and collect the data.”
Torres also believes that getting drones and robots to interoperate on a scale that is truly useful is one that universities are quite advanced in but commercially may take 4-5 years to reach the market.
And then there’s also the issue of battery life – Spot’s battery, for instance, only lasts one and a half hours (an incredibly short patrol shift!) although the latest version is able to take itself to the charging station autonomously.
Torres also points out that robots are still very expensive – therefore not really addressing the labour shortage in terms of providing a cost effective solution. They are also still cumbersome to maintain and repair.
“As a European customer of Boston Dynamics, one of the problems with Spot for us is the technical support – we must send it back to the US get repaired. This must be solved. It must be easier,” she says.
CES has always been an event populated by show-stopping robots but I leave with the impression that we’re finally seeing robots that are being designed with real world applications in mind – and that have been designed to scale – rather than for the sheer spectacle or for technology’s sake.
However, anything coming to market in the next couple of years won’t be sophisticated and, beyond logistics and security, the use cases – even by well-financed market leaders like Boston Dynamics – are still being scoped out.
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