A Bright Future for Smart Robots

With Google’s acquisition of Massachusetts robotics firm Boston Dynamics, robots have certainly been making headlines in recent weeks. Sure, over the past decade, robots—both humanoid and non-humanoid—have been gaining traction in sectors like manufacturing, defense, and of course, healthcare. But with Google’s most recent purchases, robots have been gaining some much deserved credibility and attention from the media, and leaders in virtually every industry.

While Boston Dynamics’ robots are human- and animal-shaped and intended for military use, Google has also recently acquired six other robotics companies serving a wide range of sectors. Tom Ryden, CEO of robot manufacturer VGo Communications, Inc., told the Boston Globe: “It really validates what is going on in the robotics industry. Google is not going to do something small. If they are getting into this, they believe it is a large market.”

Naturally, here at Aethon, we’re thrilled to see robots getting some mainstream attention in the business world—they are practical, versatile, and yes, can have clear economic benefit. Aethon’s autonomous smart mobile robot, TUG, has been working alongside hospital workers and patients for 10 years.

The rationale for robotics is different depending on its function.  Some robots do things too dangerous for a person to do.  Many of the defense robots fit into this category and the clear benefit is to improve the safety and welfare of our civilian and military forces.  Many robots are still research projects to discover what is possible.  Often they appear sensational and have significant advancements in development under the hood, but are not yet viable commercial products. Others, like manufacturing robots, perform rote tasks and can be cordoned off from people as they increase capacity, lower costs or improve quality.

Still others, like Aethon’s TUG robot are designed to work around and interface directly with people. They help people spend more time performing the most important or most valuable part of their job while offloading the menial or less important tasks to the robot.  This type of robot must be intelligent since it operates around people and in their surroundings.  There is no “yellow line” on the floor marking the robot’s work zone.   They become a direct link in the workflow and interface directly with people who are not robotics experts or have special training.

Julie Shah summed up the evolution of robotic applications last week in the MIT Technology Review: “Traditionally, robots were designed to work separately from people. That is starting to change as robots begin working alongside humans to courier medicine in hospitals and assemble complex machinery.”

“It is as impractical to redesign our work practices for robots as it is to redesign our physical world for them. We must instead build robots capable of doing their jobs with only minimal disruption to the people they work with or near,” she added.

We would agree that implementing autonomous robots should not require the redesign of the physical world in order to use them.  Further, they should allow people  to interact with them on human terms rather than “machine” terms.   They must be safe as well as flexible enough to adapt to the environment in real time.  We have experience meshing the use of autonomous mobile robots with people in the hospitals we serve.  Not only does the TUG navigate hospitals built decades ago it also and works directly with healthcare workers and navigates seamlessly among the patients and visitors of the hospital.  Responding to the environment and anticipating the needs of people is immensely valuable and is crucial in autonomous robot products.

However, we would suggest that using technology to merely automate a “current path” is a lost opportunity.  While it’s true robots must “fit in” and work among us without imposing themselves, changes to our workflow and work practices are inevitable to truly make the most of the opportunities afforded by the investment.

To learn more about what Aethon is doing with autonomous smart mobile robots drop us a line at inquiries@aethon.com.