Fifty years ago, GE engineer and robotics pioneer Ralph Mosher presented a groundbreaking paper at the Automotive Engineering Congress in Detroit. “Man and machine can be combined into an intimate, symbiotic unit that will perform essentially as one wedded system,” he wrote. “The adaptive, reflex control of man can be transmitted directly to a mechanism so that the mechanism responds as though it were a natural extension of the man. …Moreover, environments that are normally hostile to a human do not affect the machine.”
Mosher succeeded in building a powerful exoskeleton that could lift 1,500 pounds — he called it the Hardiman — but his man-machine combo remained a view of the future and never became a viable product.
Until now. GE is taking a second look at nimble robots that can operate in tough spots. Last year, GE Ventures invested in Sarcos Robotics, an innovative company developing robots for tasks that are too difficult or dangerous for humans. “We are really focused on the part of robotics that is about human augmentation, as opposed to human replacement,” says Sarcos Co-founder and President Fraser Smith.
These are no assembly line robots, either. Ben Wolff, Sarcos chairman and CEO, says his engineers are building dexterous robots that can do meaningful work in unpredictable or unstructured environments. Echoing Mosher’s vision, the machines can navigate new surroundings and have “very fine motor controls that allow them to manipulate objects in exactly the same way you would with your arms if you could lift so much,” Wolff says.
One such machine, the remotely operated Sarcos Guardian S snake robot, can crawl inside and inspect steam pipes within a nuclear power plant or oil storage tank. “Rather than sending a human rappelling down an 80-foot wall to look for corrosion inside a petroleum storage tank, we can send the robot,” Wolff says.
The 4.25-foot-long, battery-powered snake, which weighs about 10 pounds, can scale the tank’s vertical sides, scan them with a camera and audio and infrared sensors, and wirelessly transmit information to the maintenance crew. “The whole front of the robot is a cargo bay for sensors,” Wolff says. “When it finds a problem, humans can go to the specific area. We believe that this will improve efficiency and also reduce the workers’ exposure to a dangerous environment.” GE Oil & Gas is one of the businesses considering the snake robot, which is already on the market.
Sarcos also has bigger machines in its portfolio. The Guardian GT, for example, is a robot mounted on a mobile platform whose two arms can lift as much as 500 pounds each. The company also is developing exoskeletons that enable users to lift 200 pounds repeatedly over an extended period. “Every year, there are millions of people in the U.S alone who get injured on the job by lifting heavy things,” Wolff says.
Above: The Guardian GT, for example, is a robot mounted on a mobile platform whose two arms can lift as much as 500 pounds each. Image credit: Sarcos Robotics
Sarcos, which holds over 300 patents, started out in the 1980s as a University of Utah spinoff. The company has been one of the top recipients of funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) since it was founded. In addition to GE, investors include Microsoft, Schlumberger, Caterpillar and others.
But the company is far from done. Wolff, Smith and their engineers are now endowing their robots with machine learning. “We see an opportunity where humans can teach these robots to handle some of the most basic things on their own, like recognizing and climbing a set of stairs,” Wolff says.
Smith, who has been building robots for 35 years, got his engineering start in childhood as “one of those kids who took everything apart.” He’s been smitten with Mosher’s Hardiman ever since he found out about the machine. “Things have obviously evolved since then, but what a great system,” he says.
Now he gets to build his own.