Chris Hirschi stepped into a metal exoskeleton suit brimming with wires.
A mechanical engineer at Salt Lake City-based Sarcos Robotics, he slid his arms into its girded sleeves until his index fingers reached triggers that manipulated “thumbs” on hands at the end of two 7-foot-long arms of an industrial-strength robot, the Guardian GT. It was mounted on tanklike tracks about 10 yards in front of him.
Hirschi donned some opaque goggles that let him see the view from a camera mounted on the robot’s front frame, much like eyes in a head. He slowly, steadily moved his arms in the sleeves. The Guardian GT’s lengthy arms mirrored his movements.
With one hand, Hirschi grabbed hold of a band saw. With the other, he pushed a button powering up the saw to cut a piece of pipe off of what looked like a bank vault. Hirschi then methodically wiggled his arms in ways that allowed the robot’s elongated arms to open a standard circuit-breaker box, the kind found at most houses with the little tab that has to be depressed slightly to release the front door.
“Instead of showing you how strong it is — it can lift 1,000 pounds — we wanted you to see its dextrous movements,” said Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO of Sarcos Robotics.
He was speaking last week to a selected group of market analysts and writers from trade publications that focus on robotics and other high-tech topics, describing several new products that the company is marketing to commercial and industrial customers now that it has reduced contractual ties with the U.S. military.
Instead of building up soldiers for warfare, Sarcos Robotics is focusing now on improving workplace safety and productivity.
“We have made a commitment, as a team, not to weaponize the robots we make,” Wolff told the writers from PC Magazine, ZDNet, Popular Mechanics, Oil & Gas Engineering, The Robot Report, research firms ABI and IDC, and The Salt Lake Tribune. “Saving lives is what we want to do.”
The company’s pitch also reflected the softer side of its products’ attributes, emphasizing their maneuverability and nimbleness over their physical power.
“Chris was able to push down the tab to get the door to open, and press small buttons, so it isn’t just capable of brute force,” Wolff observed as Hirschi tapped buttons, turned a steering-wheel-shaped valve opener and adjusted levers.
“Those are things you need in case of, say, a nuclear power plant accident. You want freedom of movement, flexibility, responsiveness to the operator’s commands,” Wolff said. “There’s been lots of interest from the construction and manufacturing industries. We’re close to selling one to the nuclear-power industry.”
The Guardian GT was just one of several Sarcos products Wolff was excited for his guests to see.
There also was a snakelike robot that can climb steps, roll over on command like a dog, right itself if it tips on its side, slide up metal walls and hang upside down from ceilings, Hirschi said.
This $60,000 unit can be useful for public safety officials trying to get an up-close look at what’s happening in a hostage situation, for instance. “A SWAT team can get a look into a [gunman’s] room without putting themselves in harm’s way,” noted Eric Gahagan, a 23-year Boston Police Department veteran who responded to the 2013 marathon bombing and now is a Sarcos consultant.
With its climbing capabilities, the Guardian S snake also can be used by safety inspectors checking for corrosion high on metal bridges or giant oil storage tanks.
The biggest buzz, however, revolved around two exoskeletal suits Sarcos Robotics expects to release in 2019.
The lightweight units are designed to allow the workers who wear them to lift much greater loads than they could normally, without putting any stress on their backs or shoulders. Powered by batteries capable of holding a charge for four hours to eight hours, Wolff said, the exoskeletal framework will be light enough to allow fluid natural movements so workers can perform tasks in spaces that might be too confined for forklifts.
“The problem we’re focusing on is back injuries in the workplace,” he said, citing statistics showing that the total cost of back injuries in the United States is $100 billion a year, with 25.9 million Americans losing an average of 7.2 days of work due to back pain. Those worker compensation claims usually range from $40,000 to $80,000.
Sarcos’s Guardian XO MAX, the larger of the two exoskeleton suits at about 135 pounds, will lift 200 pounds easily and repeatedly. A smaller, 50-pound version — the Guardian XO — will lift 80 pounds and can be put on or taken off in less than a minute, Wolff said.
Countries and companies with aging workforces will find these products useful, he predicted.
“One person wearing a full-bodied exoskeleton can do the work of three to five people crowding around a heavy object and trying to manipulate it,” he said.
“Most skilled workers have to come out of the workforce because their bodies start to break down. They can’t lift as much. Their endurance is down,” Wolff added. “But if you put these aging workers in an exoskeleton, it will extend their useful, productive lives. It will also equalize employment opportunities for people of smaller stature who can’t lift as much.”
Scientists at Sarcos Robotics have been developing exoskeletons for 17 years now, company President Fraser Smith said, and are still analyzing joint movements and making tweaks here and there.
“Exoskeletons are not something you can attack quickly or lightly,” Wolff noted. “They’ve been a long time coming and a lot of lessons have been learned.”
Founded in the 1980s as a spinoff from research at the University of Utah, Sarcos Robotics worked closely for decades with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to do research and provide robotic products for the military. This was particularly true from 2007 to 2014, when it was part of Raytheon, a large defense contractor based in Massachusetts.
But, in 2014, the Sarcos Robotics operation at the U.’s Research Park was bought by Smith; Marc Olivier, vice president of technology; and Wolff, a technology and telecom entrepreneur. The company’s focus shifted.
“What we’re about today is taking DARPA technology and making it relevant for commercialization,” Wolff said, pointing to numerous products that already are visible in the public realm — from robotic dinosaurs and pirates at theme parks and the fountain at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas to prosthetic limbs and the miniature sensors that line the interior of the exoskeleton and make it responsive to the wearer’s movements.
Developing robots that can act independently through artificial intelligence is not part of the Sarcos vision, Wolff said. Human controllers are always integral to its products.
“When we’re talking about dangerous and difficult tasks and environments, for many years to come it will be incredibly important to rely on human judgment to direct the robot and not to rely on robots to do things that require human problem solving — Do I apply a saw here or there? Do I deal with an explosive environment in a certain way?” he said. “We want humans to make those decisions.”