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Exclusive interview: Sarcos Robotics aims to augment human strengths

Exclusive interview with Ben Wolff, CEO of Sarcos Robotics

Hollywood actress Sigourney Weaver is most famous for two things: one is making vests popular and the other is having an epic dust-up with a massive alien on the deck of a spaceship, toe to toe, mano-a-mano, or womano-a-womano, or womano-a-alieno, or whatever. 

In space, no one can hear you mangle the Spanish language.

The vest is of less interest to this website, but the battle suit Weaver wore to take on what is arguably the most terrifying alien in cinematic history is of great interest because it was an exoskeleton, although most people probably didn’t know what it was called at the time.

The film was, of course, Aliens, released in 1986, and in donning the exoskeleton, Weaver instantly acquired what seemed like hundreds of times her natural body strength. 

Similar exoskeletons have been seen in other films like The Matrix Revolutions and Pacific Rim, but in real life, they’re surprisingly rare.

Probably the best known is the 13-foot mechanised suit made by South Korean company Hankook Mirae.

But exactly what such huge exoskeletons would be used for – apart from appearances in films – is something of an unanswered question.

Smaller exoskeletons, however, not only look far less surreal, they are also actually finding gainful employment in industrial work environments right now.

Ben Wolff, co-founder and CEO, Sarcos Robotics
Ben Wolff, co-founder and CEO, Sarcos Robotics

In this exclusive interview, Ben Wolff, co-founder, chairman and CEO at Sarcos Robotics, offers Robotics and Automation News his views on supersized as well as sensible-sized exoskeletons, the latter of which is a product category where he suggests his company is a leader.

“I think the very, very large exoskeletons are potentially useful when you’re talking about lifting very heavy objects,” says Wolff.

“Our largest exoskeleton has seven-foot-long arms on it and can lift a thousand pounds, and do highly dexterous tasks.

“The industries that have expressed interest in that kind of machine include the construction industry and probably closely followed by the oil and gas industry, where you can find valves and other large objects that can weigh hundreds of pounds – 500 or 600 pounds.

“Typically, those components are only being lifted today by an overhead crane or a crane of some kind.

“And to be able to lift and rotate and put together and assemble very heavy components – I think there’s definitely a role for that.

“Having said that, I think the ones that I’ve seen in the movies, they go well beyond what I just described and I don’t know enough about whether there are use cases for that kind of super-large machine.”

Given that they’re usually seen in science-fiction movies, often set in space, those supermassive exoskeletons are obviously for construction work on the moon and Mars and other celestial bodies to which the world’s space agencies are sending special missions but keeping secret from the rest of us, along with the many alien technologies – and the aliens themselves – they are reportedly hiding.

More as we get it.

Sensible suits

We can only speculate about what Nasa and the other space agencies are up to, but the background of Sarcos is steeped in the military, and Wolff being a co-founder, probably knows more than he’s letting on.

Sarcos is technically a startup company, having been established in 2015 in its current form. But the company’s history goes back much further, as Wolff explains.

“The background for Sarcos is that we are a company that has been around for about 30 years,” he says.

“We were originally a spin-out from the University of Utah, and we are headquartered in Salt Lake City.

“In the early days of the business, we were focused on prosthetics. We created one of the first electrically actuated prosthetic arms, something that is still on the market today and is known as the ‘Utah arm’.

“We no longer own that technology – we sold it off quite a while ago, but the bottom line is that we started off as a prosthetics company and became very familiar with biomechanics and understood the intimate relationship between machines and the human.

“We have evolved since that time into being primarily focused on robotics, with a whole lot of production of humanoid robots for the research and development arena, for the government, and for the energy industry.

“There are a number of our robots at theme parks around the world. We also have various humanoid robots that are being used for artificial intelligence development at various research institutions – some of the most notable robotics institutions in the world, including in the US, Germany and Japan.

“Also, over the years, we’ve provided a lot of humanoid form factor robots to various government organisations – Department of Defense, Nasa, and so on.

“We have a long history of getting significant funding from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, and one of the largest programmes we have engaged in with Darpa was the original creation of a powered exoskeleton with the initial view of building exoskeletons that can be used in the military for enhancing soldier strength and endurance.

“We’ve been working on exoskeletons since about 2000, so we are going into our 18th year of working on exoskeletons, and they are a significant part of our focus going forward.

“In 2007, we were purchased by Raytheon and we became the robotics division of Raytheon. Our official name at the time was Raytheon Sarcos and, from 2007 to 2014, Raytheon owned and managed us.

“At the beginning of 2014, I partnered with the management team for a management buyout. We completed the management buyout in early 2015 and started restructuring the business and expanding its focus.

“During the years at Raytheon, we were 100 per cent focused on the military.

“After leaving Raytheon, we are expanding the focus again to include the industrial and commercial sectors as well as continuing business with the military.”

sarcos GT-Grinder
The Sarcos GT, which has hundreds of mechanical parts

Industry: the perennial frontier 

While, as Wolff implies, Sarcos is likely to deepen its relationship with the military, the new commercial opportunity is in the industrial market, where a significant number of companies in the manufacturing and logistics sectors, in particular, are already testing a range of exoskeletons from a variety of companies.

So the Sarcos exoskeleton looks like it will find a healthy market by the time it launches next year. But its snake-like inspection robot – which is already available commercially – may actually be even more successful commercially. It’s certainly different from other companies’ products, meaning it has less competition to deal with.

“We are focused on bringing three specific products to market,” says Wolff. “One is a small inspection robot, and the other two are exoskeletons or exoskeleton-like products.

“In all cases, the common theme with the three robots we’re bringing to market is that we rely on human intelligence for the most part to tele-operate or manage a robot on a remote basis or a proxy basis, being able to augment human capability, doing the kinds of things humans can’t do on their own, and to prevent humans or killed in the workplace.

“With the whole of our theme, what we’re trying to achieve is, number one, reducing injury and death for industrial and commercial workers, and number two, enhancing the productivity of those workers, so we are not about human replacement in the workplace, but rather about human augmentation.

“So the first robot, the Guardian-S, is a small inspection robot that has some similarities to the form factor of a snake – some people refer to it as our ‘snake robot’.

“It is a long, thin robot – about four-and-a-half feet long – and about seven inches in diameter, and it has the ability to crawl over and through challenging terrain the way no other robot can.

“And it is structured as a mobile internet-of-things platform or a mobile sensor platform with the idea that it can carry a variety of different types of sensors into dangerous or difficult environments and collect the data or perform inspections of a type that – right now – can only be done by human beings.

“So the idea is that the human operator would remotely control the robot, sending the robot into the dangerous or difficult environment, collect the data, perform inspection, or surveillance, and allow us to keep the human operator out of harm’s way.

“Eventual use cases and target markets for us range from industrial inspection, like in petrochemical facilities or oil and gas facilities through to construction environments, where dismantling or deconstruction is happening and you need to understand what an environment looks like when you start digging into it.

“It’s got applicability in the power industry, for inspecting, and in the aircraft and aviation industry, and then in the public safety and military environment, it’s a great surveillance that can be used by the DoD or bomb squad community, by SWAT teams and other tactical teams.

“So, unlike most other robots, this is a robot – because of its form factor and because really it’s a sensor platform – has applicability across a whole host of different industries and use cases.

“The history of robotics companies is often that they make a robot that tends for a very specific use case or to solve a very specific problem.

“Our approach is exactly the opposite. We try and come up with a platform that has utility and value creation or value-add across a lot of different industries and uses so that we can become a higher-volume business and bring down the cost of our products.”

The three products Sarcos is launching, or has already launched, are:

  • the Guardian S – the “snake” mobile robot, mainly used for industrial inspection applications;
  • the Guardian GT – which is a dual-armed, mobile robot, use for lifting and moving heavy objects; and
  • the Guardian XO – which is the company’s exoskeleton, also used for heavy lifting, but has a variety of other applications.

All three products, which can be hired or bought, are designed to be directly controlled by a human operator but have capabilities which help augment the human operation.

The Sarcos XO exoskeleton
The Sarcos XO exoskeleton

What’s in it for GE? 

It turns out that General Electric experimented with exoskeletons as far back as 1965, developing something called the “Hardiman”, in co-operation with the DoD.

It was intended to give the average human worker the ability to lift 1,500 lbs and featured hydraulic systems.

It was eventually abandoned because “the technology needed to make it truly functional simply had yet to be invented”, according to an interesting article about “exosuits” on Gizmodo, which may be on the market for an exoskeleton as long as it’s the same as the one worn by Matt Damon in Elysium.

More than 40 years on, Sarcos is fortunate to be operating in a time when it seems all of the technologies required to make exoskeletons a reality are available.

“It’s an incredibly complex machine,” says Wolff, “but it’s easy to use, reliable, and easy to maintain.

“That’s been a lot of our effort over the past five years, and I think that’s what we’ve achieved.”

The Hardiman was developed by Ralph Mosher, who also worked on something called the “Handyman”, which is described as a “powered arm”, although not much is known about it.

But it does explain why GE was one of Sarcos’ most prominent investors, taking part in the startup’s most recent funding round and bringing total funds raised to $25 million.

Wolff says the investment round was Sarcos’ “very first time of ever taking capital from outside parties”, and the investment round was led by GE, Microsoft, Caterpillar, which is big in construction, and Schlumberger, a drilling and oilfield services company.

The use cases would seem obvious, but Wolff breaks it down for us anyway: “GE has a very robust industrial inspection business. It also has a robust oil and gas industry business and an aviation business.

“With our snake robot, the Guardian-S, there are applications for that robot in all of those industries.

“But while GE is very interested in our Guardian-S robot, they‘re equally very interested in our exoskeleton line.

“GE sees tremendous opportunities relating to agile manufacturing lines – to deploy exoskeleton robots of various sizes and capabilities in manufacturing environments that are specifically focused on advanced manufacturing and agile manufacturing techniques.

“So the idea that a human being can have the kind of strength and endurance that a machine allows but to have the versatility of a human being – it’s the best of both worlds.

“If you think about robots that are used in the manufacturing processes today, most of them are fixed in place, and they are single-threaded in terms of the use case or their capability.

“I think GE is a big proponent of robotics in their businesses. They have a very large team of people that focus on nothing but robotics, and I think that they saw our human-driven robots as a potential real opportunity across the manufacturing space across a variety of different industries.

“In the case of Schlumberger, I think they similarly see applications broadly across the oil and gas industry for all of our products, and they were interested in working with us to shape and define the way that the products would be used for the oil and gas industry.”

Sarcos’ Guardian S “snake” robot takes the stairs
Sarcos’ Guardian S “snake” robot takes the stairs

Only in the movies 

It’s possible that we are wrong to think that Nasa is secretly building space colonies and bases on Mars and the moon using gigantic exoskeletons worn by human astronauts we have never heard of.

It may be that those colossal contraptions are only to be found in the movies and at companies which are developing them as showpieces, perhaps for exhibitions, or indeed the movies.

The exoskeleton built by Hankook Mirae, for example, played a central role in Pacific Rim.

Such instances of employment are naturally rare, but for smaller, more practical exoskeletons that can be worn almost like traditional clothes, Wolff says there is substantial demand.

“We believe exoskeletons will be a very large market,” he says, “and we’re not surprised by the industrial interest – that has been our thesis for more than 15 years.

“If it is a product that is very capable, that is intuitive to use, that does not impair, impede or endanger the human operator and actually does the opposite and reduces injuries and solves a lot of the human factor’s problems which exist in manufacturing environments and other industrial use cases – and we believe we can deliver a cost-effective solution – then there would be significant interest.”

So far, the majority of exoskeletons featured in the media have been pictured in healthcare settings, being used by patients who have trouble walking, for example.

This, too, is growing market in which some companies are finding commercial success. But it’s a different technology with what might be thought of as a complementary aim.

Wolff explains: “I think the reason you see the media mainly focusing on rehabilitation exoskeletons so far is that those are the first exoskeletons that have come to market, and there’s a good reason for that.

“Dealing with rehabilitation efforts is just a different kind of thing, where you‘re not worried about trying to safely allow people to lift a lot with the upper body but rather you’re focused instead on helping people who are injured to walk again. 

“Those are not easy problems to solve, but I would say they are easier problems to solve than trying to do what we’re trying to do, which is have very healthy and capable human beings do the work of four, five or six human beings safely.

“That’s really our focus. I think the time has finally come because we’re finally at the point of being able to demonstrate capabilities of a full-body powered exoskeleton that can lift a couple of hundreds of pounds repeatedly for an eight-hour work shift.

“The fact that it’s now viable, that it’s possible, I think is capturing a lot of people’s attention, and I think you’ll end up seeing – and this is my prediction – industrial exoskeletons that facilitate heavy lifting as well as enhanced endurance over the next five or 10 years.

“I believe you will see them ubiquitously in the manufacturing industry and other sectors.”

Wolff adds that the Sarcos now has a better opportunity than ever to develop increasingly sophisticated and powerful technologies because of the availability of far greater computing power and components that are far more precise, reliable, and capable at the same time as costing less than they did previously.

When each one of your machines integrates hundreds of sensors and chips, as Sarcos’ products do, costs can skyrocket if each tiny little component is relatively expensive.

Wolff says: “I think we are beginning the golden age of robotics because, for the first time, all of the necessary ingredients are coming together in one place to make these machines commercially viable.

“Combine the advances in components and hardware with what’s happening in the software space – with sensors and data and the ability to process large amounts of data – and really we are finally at that point where manufacturers like us to do novel things that were never before possible.”