SenSuit helps humans control robot co-workers

Automation and robotics are changing the way many of us work--that’s a given. But as the nature of workforces evolve, with robots doing some things humans used to do, and human jobs moving in new and different directions, the success of many organizations is going to be dependent on how well humans and robots can work together--how robots can supplementally benefits humans in the new roles they play, and how much control humans have in managing their robotic co-workers.

At their best, robots controlled by humans can enhance overall productivity, and more importantly, keep humans workers safe from the dangers of complex work environments. According to the 2019 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, workers falling from height in the U.S. is the fourth-most disabling and costly injury after overexertion, falling from the same level, and being struck by an object or equipment. 

The SenSuit controller garment and the Guardian XT mobile robotic system, both from Sarcos Robotics, provide one example of how some balance of human-robot interaction can be achieved to get a job done while keeping a human worker safe. Sarcos recently said it had successfully demonstrated its SenSuit, which allows a human worker wearing the garment to perform “enhanced teleoperation” of the Guardian XT robot. In a video of the demonstration, conducted at the company’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, a worker wearing the SenSuit controls the Guardian XT as it extends to trim high branches from a tall tree.

The system uses a number of sensors--a Sarcos spokesman declined to say how many--and leverages inertial measurement unit-based motion tracking and Sarcos’ proprietary motion capture controller technology to make the robot’s dexterous arms move, lift items weighing up to 200 lbs., and perform other precise tasks. 

The Guardian XT robot, which itself is the top half of the Sarcos Guardian XO robotic exoskeleton, is expected to be available by the end of next year. It will integrate Sarcos’ SenSuit wearable controller and a high definition, virtual reality or augmented reality-based head-mounted display, providing situational awareness and enabling workers to have intuitive control of the robot. The robot will be equipped with three degrees of freedom, and will be able to use the same common trade tools humans use.

Sarcos is targeting several industries with remote, complex or dangerous work environments, including power utilities, oil & gas, chemical processing, food processing, construction, infrastructure maintenance and repair, heavy manufacturing, maritime, distribution and warehousing, and park, forest, and commercial property management.

“We do believe that human augmentation robots have the highest potential for the implementation of robotic systems across many industries,” the Sarcos spokesman said via email. “There are many types of jobs that cannot be fully automated, and for this reason, we are expecting global worker shortages in almost every skilled labor industry over the next decade. There will be no shortage of jobs available to the general workforce, but young people may need to reconsider the types of jobs they want to perform as many desk jobs are likely to become fully or partially automated.”

He added, “Fortunately, technologies that augment human workers performing manual labor, such as full-body, battery-powered industrial exoskeletons, have the potential to significantly optimize productivity, reduce the likelihood of occupational injuries, equalize the workforce by enabling more diversity, and to potentially extend the longevity of workers’ careers when performing skilled labor jobs.”

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