IoT/IIoT Device Management , Business Developments , Digital Transformation

Humanoid Robots to Work at Amazon, Mercedes - and in Space

Robots Offer More Versatility to Help Workers But Face Safety, Reliability Concerns
Humanoid Robots to Work at Amazon, Mercedes - and in Space
Image: Shutterstock

Industrial robots have been around since the 1980s, helping human workers weld automobile components, lift heavy packages in warehouses, solder microchips, pack goods, assist in deep-sea exploration and perform maintenance in hazardous environments such as nuclear plants.

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But humanoids - robots that resemble humans with arms, legs, a head and the ability to see and grasp objects - are gaining momentum. In recent weeks, NASA announced plans with Apptronik to develop a general-purpose prototype called Apollo that will be able to perform spacewalks and other dangerous tasks.

Normally, it can take years for emerging technology for space exploration to be applied to industrial environments on Earth, but Mercedes-Benz announced this week that Apollo will be toting boxes and car parts in its manufacturing plants. Amazon, a pioneer in distribution center robotics, recently debuted Digit, a humanoid built by Agility Robotics, that can move as well as grasp and handle items in spaces and corners of warehouses in novel ways. It is designed to collaborate with human workers in warehouses and on shop floors.

Apollo on the assembly line at Mercedes-Benz (Image: Apptronik)

Versatility in the Workplace

These robots offer new levels of versatility over single-purpose factory robots, and that enables them to handle repetitive tasks normally done by humans. But safety experts warn that it also puts robots in proximity to people and creates the potential for worker injuries caused by robots.

The National Institute of Health cautioned that the adoption of robots in the workplace will increase human exposure to robotic machinery and may introduce new hazards. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study last year found that robots killed 41 workers between 1992 and 2017 - and 83% of those deaths were caused by stationary robots.

Amazon, which has a workforce of 750,000 robots and 1.5 million human employees, has been using robots in its warehouses for a decade and says worker safety is important. Last year, when Amazon deployed a humanoid called Digit and a robotics system called Sequoia that it developed in secret for years, the company said the technology is aimed at reducing injuries on the shop floor by reducing potentially risky human movements.

Amazon said it will initially use Digit to help employees with tote recycling, a highly repetitive process of picking up and moving empty totes once inventory has been completely removed.

"These totes come to employees at a newly designed ergonomic workstation that allows them to do all their work in their power zone, between mid-thigh and mid-chest height. With this system, employees will no longer have to regularly reach above their heads or squat down to pick customer orders, supporting our efforts to reduce the risk of injuries," Amazon said.

Digit carrying an empty tote at the Amazon R&D center (Image: Agility Robotics)

Over the years, Amazon has introduced other robots including Kiva, Sparrow, Proteus and Cardinal - in its distribution centers. The latest robotics system, Sequoia, does most of the automated heavy lifting: Mobile robots transport containerized inventory directly to a gantry - a tall frame with a platform supporting equipment that can either restock totes or send them to an employee to pick out inventory ordered by Amazon customers. Digit will be able to perform other tasks that Sequoia robots cannot handle.

Apptronik recently announced a collaboration with Mercedes-Benz to identify applications for highly advanced robotics in Mercedes-Benz manufacturing.

Mercedes-Benz is exploring potential use cases for Apollo humanoid robots in logistics to bring parts to the production line for workers to assemble - called the delivery of assembly kits -while simultaneously inspecting the components. Apollo also will be used to deliver the totes of kitted parts later in the manufacturing process.

"Mercedes plans to use robotics and Apollo for automating some low-skill, physically challenging, manual labor - a model use case which we'll see other organizations replicate in the months and years to come," said Jeff Cardenas, Apptronik CEO and co-founder.

Human-Robot Collaboration

Human-robot collaboration, or HRC, is vital for digital transformation and automation. While machines can take on certain tasks that are beyond human capability, they will not replace people, who will be required to make crucial decisions.

But robots must be designed to work with humans with minimal risk of accidents that endanger lives. Research and development in this areas still at an early stage.

Essex University professor Rael Dawtry said, "As robots are becoming more sophisticated, they are performing a wider range of tasks with less human involvement. Some tasks such as autonomous driving or military uses of robots pose a risk to peoples' safety, which raises questions about how - and where - responsibility will be assigned when people are harmed by autonomous robots."

Some manufacturers are investing in laser scanners and other devices "to create an additional layer of safety" for collaborative robots, Tom Knauer, industry manager for the Americas at Balluff Inc., told Assembly magazine in 2021.

"That enables them to run machines at full speed using the upper limits of force at times when an operator has stepped away from the safe zone," he said.

Designing Robots for Space - and Earth

Some humanoid robots have been designed to operate in harsh environments that pose dangers to people. NASA has been testing a humanoid called Valkyrie at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Valkrie is designed to operate in "degraded or damaged human-engineered environments," such as areas hit by natural disasters, said NASA. Valkyrie stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 300 pounds.

NASA now wants to commercialize Valkyrie and adapt it for use in space missions to assist astronauts with risky tasks such as maintaining external spacecraft, inspecting malfunctioning equipment and cleaning solar panels. NASA partnered with Austin, Texas-based manufacturer Apptronik, which was part of the original Valkyrie development team.

Apptronik said it is supporting NASA's goals of reducing human exposure to hazardous environments and, potentially, extending humanity's reach in space. NASA built and launched the first humanoid in space, Robonaut 2, in 2011 for an eight-year mission on the International Space Station. But that robot only performed minimal tasks, such as operating a control interface and measuring airflow.

Apptronik's 5-foot, 8-inch Apollo weighs 160 pounds, has a runtime of four hours per battery pack and can lift 55 pounds. The company said Apollo is the first commercial humanoid robot that was designed for friendly interaction, mass manufacturability, high payloads and safety.

"We believe that Apollo is one of the most advanced tools humanity has ever created. How we apply it will change the way that we live and work," Cardenas said.

Shaun Azimi, space robotics and mobility technical leader at NASA JSC, told Reuters, "We're not trying to replace human crews; we're really just trying to take the dull, dirty and dangerous work off their plates to allow them to focus on those higher-level activities."

In a LinkedIn post, Reza Bigdeli, electronic, embedded system and software development engineer, said the "unpredictable and harsh environment of space" presents numerous technical obstacles.

He said robots such as the Mars rovers must withstand intense radiation, extreme temperatures and microgravity.

"Additionally, maintaining and repairing robots millions of miles away is not yet feasible, which requires an unprecedented level of reliability in our robotics technology," Bigdeli said.

Apptronik expects the terrestrial version of Apollo will operate in warehouses and manufacturing plants in the near term and eventually extend into construction, oil and gas, electronics production, retail, home delivery, elder care and more.

Humanoids robots can be immensely useful in the workplace but for that to happen, human-robot collaboration should be seamless, complementary and - most of all - safe.

"Closer human-robot interaction is leading to higher levels of productivity and collaboration that were unthinkable 10 years ago," Knauer said. "The optimal solution for many applications in the future will be humans working together with robots, not robots taking jobs away from people."

About the Author

Brian Pereira

Brian Pereira

Sr. Director - Editorial, ISMG

Pereira has nearly three decades of journalism experience. He is the former editor of CHIP, InformationWeek and CISO MAG. He has also written for The Times of India and The Indian Express.

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