Robots have been considered too dangerous to work alongside humans. This is not due to a fear of some robot uprising, but because until recently, robotic senses have not been advanced enough to be safe around humans.
“In manufacturing facilities, robots are basically in cages like wild animals … so you can’t get in there and get hurt,” says David Bourne, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who works on robotic manufacturing. Having “the robot and person work side-by-side is really scary to a lot of people,” he says. “If it swings around and hits you, it could take your head off.”
But improved technologies for vision processing and gripping are leading to a new wave of robots. Meet Robonaut 2, a robot sent to the International Space Station to aid astronauts with repetitive or dangerous tasks. R2, which has only a torso, arms and fingers, and a head full of sensors, was the result of a joint effort by NASA and General Motors to create a robot that could operate safely alongside humans.
R2 uses elastic actuators, a technology that works like human nerve endings, to sense the amount of force of its own motions.
“The use of series elastic actuators changes the whole approach to manufacturing robots. (It) makes the robot able to safely interact with people,” says Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of iRobot and founder of Heartland Robotics.
In addition to its heightened senses, R2 is humanlike in that its shell is soft in case of accidental collisions, and its head is filled with enough cameras to determine depth perception.
Its excellent performance on the International Space Stations has entrepreneurs excited to try it on Earth. GM uses about 2,500 new robots every year, and has around 20,000 to 25,000 robots in factories worldwide. This new generation of robots would not replace them, but do smaller, more sophisticated tasks, like handling screws, handles, airbag and blind-spot warning sensors that go into the car doors.