The general public may view exoskeletons as science fiction, but Sarcos Technology and Robotics Corp. is making them a reality for industrial use today. The company is rapidly growing to address the potential of human-robot collaboration.
Founded in 1983, Sarcos started out like many commercial robotics pioneers, developing systems for the U.S. Department of Defense. Its Guardian S is a portable mobile robot for surveillance and inspection.
The Salt Lake City-based company is also developing the Guardian GT, a tracked mobile manipulator with teleoperated robot arms each able to lift up to 500 lb. for tasks such as welding and decommissioning nuclear power facilities.
The Guardian HLS is a pneumatic heavy-lifting system for quickly lifting armored tactical vehicles and other large payloads.
Sarcos meets challenges with humans in the loop
Despite COVID-19 and economic worries, supply chain snafus and worker shortages have helped companies understand the value of automation, said Kiva Allgood, president and CEO of Sarcos.
“The pandemic has been an accelerant for robotics, as companies have had to rewrite their standard operating procedures or SOPs,” she told Robotics 24/7. “Companies are desperate for new ways of doing things faster and safer.”
“We're targeting deep technical problems in unstructured environments where exoskeletons and teleoperated systems can do those things,” she added. “Society has become more accustomed to hybrid work, and businesses are more willing to embrace change.”
While many robotics and vehicle developers are working toward full autonomy, Sarcos has kept its focus on technologies that work with people.
“Unlike machine learning, which works in standardized, controlled conditions, we're looking at supervised autonomy and success-based training, which can attack different use cases, such working with a plasma cutter,” Allgood said. “There are cases where human intuition needs to be present.”
Exoskeleton demonstrates what's possible
The ultimate expression of a “human in the loop” for robotics is the Guardian XO. It is a full-body, powered exoskeleton that is designed to support its own weight and be wearable for an entire work shift.
“With the XO, we've shown what's possible,” said Allgood. “It's easier to demystify what robots can do today and show how we can create value through collaboration with robots.”
“We have performed lots of simulation to achieve self-stabilization and a smooth gait, and we've gathered a lot of feedback to understand the hardware, the software, and the operator,” she said.
The exoskeleton has 24 degrees of freedom and two hot-swappable batteries. “The next generation of the XO will move spinal rotation to the femur, based on feedback from logistics partners,” said Ben Mimmack, director of investor relations at Sarcos.
The Guardian XO has “get out of the way” controls and compensates for gravity. It also has the ability to lock its arms in place so the operator can manipulate objects or change end effectors.
In a demonstration at Sarcos headquarters, operator-trainer Tara Scranton lifted tires, drums, and cases that weighed more than 100 lb. as if they weighed only 10 lb. The operator feels very little resistance from the suit, and it can be adjusted to the user's preference. I lifted a case that weighed about 50 lb. with surprising ease.
The exosuit relies on the operator's sense of balance and reflexes, and it takes about two hours to work with comfortably and a week to use confidently, said Scranton.
“The goal of the commercial product is to be useful and to meet people's expectations from movies,” said Mimmack. Sarcos has worked with companies including Delta Air Lines, he noted.
Sarcos keeps focus on applications
“As Sarcos moves from R&D to true production, we're focused on rounding out key functions in supply chain, manufacturing, and quality,” said Allgood.
Falls and electrocution are among the leading causes of workplace fatalities, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Utilities inspection and maintenance are dangerous and often occur in difficult weather conditions.
Sarcos' Guardian XT, which recently completed beta development, is a roughly humanoid design with two arms and stereo cameras that can be mounted in a lift basket for work at height while keeping the operator safely on the ground. The Guardian DX is a variant for the defense industry.
With HP Reverb virtual reality goggles, hand controllers, and 3D motion-capture technology from Xsens, I was able to look through the cameras and move the seven degree-of-freedom robot arms intuitively. Sarcos is working on haptic actuators, sensing and data capabilities, and its own motion-capture suit.
“Operators can become familiar with the XT in minutes,” said Jim Cory, principal product engineer at Sarcos. “Learning to use it is orders of magnitude less difficult than learning the task itself. We're not training roboticists; it's just a tool.”
RE2 Robotics gives Sarcos a Pittsburgh foothold
In April, Sarcos Robotics acquired RE2 Robotics Inc. for $100 million. The Pittsburgh-based company has developed autonomous and teleoperated mobile robots for use in the aviation, construction, defense, energy, and medical industries.
RE2's systems are complementary to that of the Guardian XT and other Sarcos technologies. The company has added RE2's Sapien 6M manipulator and Sapien Sea Class robotic arm to its offerings. The acquisition nearly doubled Sarcos' engineering resources and staff, adding about 100 people to an existing team of 180.
“We've doubled our own staff in the past two years,” said Jorgen Pedersen, founder of RE2 Robotics and now chief operating officer at Sarcos. RE2 is also doubling its production space by 10,000 sq. ft.
Sarcos itself recently moved into new headquarters, taking up 30,000 sq. ft. and half of a former foundry. In addition, both Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City offer a lower cost of living than Silicon Valley or Boston, noted Allgood.
“While Salt Lake doesn't have a Carnegie Mellon, Silicon Slopes does have biotech, government contractors, and an outdoor lifestyle,” she said.
Is Sarcos considering other corporate partnerships? “We're looking at multi-generational product plans,” replied Allgood. “We're strategically looking at 3D printing for machine parts. Additive manufacturing is where lithium-ion batteries were seven years ago before Tesla.”
Last week, Ben Wolff, Sarcos founder and executive chairman, and Pedersen rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq Stock Market to celebrate the merger. The company began trading on the exchange after a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merger in September 2021.
“We've integrated executives, and now we're integrating engineering teams,” said Mimmack. “Then, we'll be integrating our offerings.”