This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
With a virtual reality headset strapped to her head and controllers clasped to her hands, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall directed a robot to wave at the crowd staring at her. Every movement Mendenhall made, the robot precisely replicated. When she shifted her eyes, so did the robot. When she extended her arm, a robotic arm mimicked.
Before operating the Guardian XT teleoperated dexterous robot on Wednesday, Mendenhall applauded the company for influencing the blueprint of “Tech Lake City” by helping carve the area into an “innovation district.”
The Granary District is historically known for being the industrial heart of the city. That’s changing as more tech companies set up shop in the neighborhood. However, Mendenhall predicted the growing nature of tech in the city would bolster career opportunities for Salt Lakers.
“We care deeply about connecting those high paying, highly mobile jobs to our community members,” she said, “who have been too disconnected from this growing economy.”
And the Guardian XT pays homage to the roots of the district. Instead of building a robot to deliver food or sniff out security threats at the airport, Guardian XT is extending a mechanical hand to the trades.
Some occupations like construction, powerline maintenance and forklift operation, require humans to risk their life to complete the job. But Kiva Allgood, the CEO of Sarcos, says the main purpose of their technology is to “prevent injury and save lives” by reducing workplace accidents.
The first step to reducing workplace accidents is minimizing the sticky situations employees are placed in that could result in the loss of life. In 2020, 5.3% of all electrical incidents were fatal, according to The Electrical Safety Foundation International. Of those deaths, 33% were between the ages of 25 and 34.
However, the Guardian XT has the ability to cut through a live wire without electrocuting someone, for example.
With its two claw hands, the robot can remove a worker from scaling a high rise in order to paint the siding. It can also operate power tools in various situations. The Guardian XT, which Allgood says is female but they haven’t decided on a name quite yet, also has the ability to lift heavy materials up to 200 pounds.
Not only is the robot able to complete vital tasks in dangerous environments, Allgood noted it could help reduce wear and tear trade jobs placed on the human body.
“If you’re constantly riveting or you’re doing a job that causes a lot of vibration,” she said, “that causes a lot of damage.”
But with the help of a skilled worker, the Guardian XT can perform those tedious tasks and save the body from breaking down.
“There are some jobs we put humans in that we just shouldn’t place humans in, but we don’t have a choice,” Allgood said, “and now we do.”
One fear of automation innovation is the possibility it could reduce job opportunities. In Sarcos’ case, Guardian XT is meant to work with humans in different trade professions—not replace them. The robot must be operated by a person.
“We’re augmenting the workforce by not replacing the workforce,” Allgood said. “We’re reducing the amount of stress, we’re reducing the amount of harm they place themselves in.”
Through human remote control, Guardian XT can perform dangerous tasks in hazardous environments. Operators use their natural movements, instincts and judgment to control the robot in risky human situations.
“Users control the robot by utilizing their natural reflexes, instincts, and judgment to perform complex tasks in unstructured, often hazardous environments, all while keeping the operator out of harm’s way,” the Sarcos website reads.
The ongoing labor shortage is only predicted to get worse, especially in skilled trades like construction and manufacturing. In fact, within the next decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there to be 54.8 million skilled labor job openings as the current workforce begins to retire.
But Allgood believes the robotic addition to the industry is actually enhancing the trade profession. The technology also opens the door for people with physical disabilities to work in the trade industry since workers don’t have to scale buildings themselves.
“To be honest with you, a lot of folks, especially the next generation, the thought of being a robot operator is a lot sexier,” Allgood said with a chuckle.
And if becoming a robot operator seems like a dream job, Allgood says the company is hiring. Sarcos hopes the Guardian XT will be ready for purchase in 2023.