Wander through the typical automotive assembly plant’s body shop and you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a handful of human workers. Whether welding, applying adhesive or moving parts from one conveyor belt to another, most everything is handled by robots programmed to do the same, repetitive tasks, over and over and over.
But what if robots didn’t have to be bolted to the floor and walled off? What if they could work alongside a human or even substitute for workers in dangerous and difficult situations? That’s the idea that Hyundai highlighted during a CES presentation this week.
A year after purchasing Boston Dynamics, a company known for its human and animal-like robots, Hyundai is looking for ways in which tomorrow’s mechanized devices could become a familiar part of everyday life, whether on the factory floor or even at home.
“Robotics and mobility naturally work together,” said Hyundai Chairman Euisun Chung, who opened up the automaker’s hourlong event at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show.
Robots today have a variety of applications, including warehouses and even in medicine where they can assist in difficult surgical procedures. But they’re most common in manufacturing, especially along automotive assembly lines where they can be programmed to perform difficult and repetitive activities with ease. But the goal is to create new versions that are far more flexible and, indeed, even more human like, said Marc Raibert, the chairman and founder of Boston Dynamics.
“We’re making big plans to be able to create new generations of robots with lots more capabilities in the future,” said Raibert.
One example goes by the name of “Spot,” a 70-pound, four-legged robot that bears an uncanny resemblance to a dog. Atlas is a “bipedal humanoid robot” weighing in at 175 pounds and can walk on two legs, more a human. Like some of the other robots his company has developed, Spot and Atlas are equipped with sensors that can provide “situational awareness,” the ability to see and understand what is going on around them. And “athletic intelligence” makes it possible for robots to walk, climb, even do back flips.
Enter the Metaverse
Tomorrow’s robots will take a variety of different shapes. Hyundai is working on what Raibert described as “wearable robots, human exoskeletons.” These could ease the burden when workers have to perform their own difficult tasks, such as repeatedly lifting heavy parts or tools. “In some cases,” said Raibert, “they could make the person into a superhuman.”
Hyundai and Boston Dynamics see even more futuristic applications for robotics, however, by connecting to the Internet and the Metaverse. Longer term, robots could be equipped with sensors that give them digital senses, such as touch. A human operator could then connect remotely, turning the robot into a mechanical avatar.
A technician might be able to skip traveling to a remote location, suggested Raibert, essentially becoming one with a robot that can make repairs.
“Robots can operate in places where people shouldn’t go,” he added, noting that several Boston Dynamics robots now operate at the abandoned Fukushima nuclear plant, site of a meltdown a decade ago.
Competitors also see opportunities
Hyundai is by no means the only automaker interested in the technology. Toyota has set up its own robotics division, as has Honda — which is fond of showing off its own anthropomorphized robot, ASIMO. It has reached the point where it can run, jump, bend or pick up a glass of water.
Next-generation robots are beginning to appear on assembly lines. Hyundai rival Ford Motor Co. last year acquired several of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots and has been using them to precisely map out the interiors of its factories.
Ford has also installed “cobots” at several plants. They’re no longer walled off, away from humans but are positioned right alongside those workers to help handle difficult tasks.
Anthropomorphic robots have even gone into space, including one built by General Motors that was sent up to the International Space Station.
Robots in daily life
Down the line, Boston Dynamic’s Raibert expects them to become commonplace in our daily life. Those exoskeletons could make it possible for the elderly and handicapped to move around, he said.
And robot avatars could dramatically expand our horizons. Imagine, he suggested, if one were placed on the moon or Mars, where it could permit a child to remotely see and feel what it was like to explore another planet as if they were actually there.
“That’s really science fiction at the moment,” said Raibert, but perhaps not for long.