Space & Innovation

Humanoid Robots: Jobs They'll Do

Although the human form is tricky to mimic, it's necessary as people and machines work more closely together.

This coming weekend, a competition called the DARPA Robotics Challenge is being held to test the skills of robots designed to assist people in disasters. Most of these robots resemble humans in that they have two arms and two legs as well as a head. The human form is flexible. It can walk, run, bend, squat, jump and manipulate several different objects at once -- a capability that no robot has, just yet.

Although the human form is tricky to mimic, it seems almost necessary as people and machines work more closely together in factories, hospitals, rescue operations and more.

"We already have all the tools," said Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher at The Robot Report. "We just need to get a robot to be able to use them. A robot arm has to have enough strength to pick up a Black and Decker, screw in a change of tools and go off and use it."

Robots that mimic the human shape can not only use human tools, but operate better in homes and workspaces designed for people.

As robots begin to look more like humans, they'll start to act like them, displaying individual "personalities." But there's a fine line between resembling a human and being mistaken for one. Robots that look too human creep out people, a concept roboticists call the uncanny valley.

It's one of many challenges researchers face as they design and build robots that walk and talk like humans.

When people are in danger, robots can help. Some handle hazardous materials, and there are drones that can rescue people at sea. But what if people are trapped in a burning building and the only tools to break down a door are axes? Or a valve needs to be shut off manually, but the room its in is full of poison gas? That's where ATLAS comes in.

ATLAS looks like the Terminator, and is designed to be able to use tools and get around rough terrain – something that in a disaster zone might be common. Arms give it flexibility to use any available human tools. That means there's no need to anticipate what kind of tool is needed. If ATLAS needs to smash a door it can do that, and if it needs to lift up a beam it can do that too.

ATLAS isn't the only humanoid design geared to disaster zones. A team from NASA built the Valkyrie, which looks more like an armored superhero, a la Iron Man. What's more, it has a soft outer shell to make it easier for people to be around, and that might be what someone in a tough situation needs to help calm down.

Also, unlike wheeled robots, ATLAS and Valkyrie can handle stairs. When the elevators aren't working, that can be crucial.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing the ARM, or Advanced Robot Manipulator. It's a multi-purpose robot, designed to inspect strange objects on the battlefield, but one area that looks promising is inspecting suspect baggage for the TSA. Tobe noted that a big headache for the TSA is labor costs, and robots like this one could help bring that cost down. A single human agent could oversee several robots, which could inspect bags and sound an alarm if they find something. The robots would have a big advantage over scanners – they could actually pick up and observe something in a bag.

Baggage is an example of an environment designed for humans that current robots are really bad at navigating, because a typical industrial robot can't "feel around" an odd-shaped suitcase or duffel bag, especially if it's oddly shaped. On top of that, the robots have to handle the bags with a light touch, in a place with lots of people who can sometimes get in the way – unruly children don't usually run around auto assembly plants, but they do in airports. That's one reason the ARM is designed more like a human being, to give it the kind of flexibility necessary to handle whatever comes its way.

Another plus is that nobody thinks the ARM is going to take the money or valuables from their bag.

Children with disorders on the autism spectrum often have a tough time learning social skills. Some are actually frightened or disturbed when dealing with other people, or just have problems learning how to pay attention to those around them. Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics has designed a robot called NAO that is being tested in projects at Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina and in the United Kingdom.

According to the Vanderbilt researchers, the robot, with its simple face – just eyes and a simple speaker mouth – is easier for autistic children to "read" and doesn't over-stimulate. In this case, it helps that the robot looks less human. The children can learn to imitate the robot, playing versions of "Simon Says," and with that, learn social skills.

Helping elderly or disabled people is a difficult job, and it's one that many weren't sure robots could do at all. There's been some advances here: In Japan, with a population that is rapidly aging, Ri-Man, built by the country's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, or RIKEN, is strong enough to lift people to their beds from a wheelchair, and is designed to help with household tasks. Sohisticated as Ri-Man is, a very real problem for such robots is social interaction–people sometimes find the lack of affect repels them, and so home care robots aren't taking off as well as they might. In fact in Japan that's been a very real problem. Being humanoid, in this instance, is more than skin-deep.

Hoaloha Robotics is addressing the software problem, and CEO Tandy Trower, a veteran of Microsoft, hopes to have robots that will interact with people in a natural way. "Our robot does not have legs and you would never mistake it for being another person. But it does have a head and "face". The face helps deliver social expressions that we learn from birth. It helps deliver an interface that is both natural and familiar."