Baxter is a two-armed robot with a tablet-like panel for its "eyes". (Image: Rethink Robotics, Inc.)
Baxter is a two-armed robot with a tablet-like panel for its "eyes". (Image: Rethink Robotics, Inc.)

Industrial robots have long been considered hulking, highly specialised pieces of machinery that are cordoned off by cages from human factory workers.

Recently, however, manufacturers have also begun trialling a new generation of "cobots" designed to work side-by-side with humans, and researchers from MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) have begun a joint investigation on how to make human-robot collaborations more natural and efficient.

Extending human-robot collaboration

In recent years, the robotics industry has introduced new platforms that are less expensive and intended to be easier to reprogram and integrate into manufacturing.

Furniture maker Steelcase, a global company headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan owns four next-generation robots based on a platform called Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics. Each Baxter robot has two arms and a tablet-like panel for "eyes" that provide cues to help human workers anticipate what the robot will do next.

"Our hope with this research is that we will learn how to extend human-robot collaboration more broadly across our operations," said Steelcase's Edward Vander Bilt.

Bilge Mutlu, an assistant professor of computer sciences from UW-M, said: "This new family of robotic technology will change how manufacturing is done.

"New research can ease the transition of these robots into manufacturing by making human-robot collaboration better and more natural as they work together."

Speech and repair

Mutlu's team is building on previous work related to topics such as gaze aversion in humanoid robots, robot gestures and the issue of "speech and repair". For example, if a human misunderstands a robot's instructions or carries them out incorrectly, how should the robot correct the human?

At MIT, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics Julie A. Shah breaks down the components of human-robot teamwork and tries to determine who should perform various tasks. Mutlu's work complements Shah's by focusing on how humans and robots actually interact.

"People can sometimes have difficulty figuring out how best to work with or use a robot, especially if its capabilities are very different from people's," Shah said.

"Automated planning techniques can help bridge the gap in our capabilities and allow us to work more effectively as a team."

Worker perceptions

UW-M computer sciences graduate student Allison Sauppé travelled to Steelcase headquarters to learn more about its efforts to incorporate Baxter into the production line. She found that perceptions of Baxter varied according to employees' roles.

Sauppé  said while managers tended to see Baxter as part of the overall system of automation, front-line workers had more complex feelings.

"Some workers saw Baxter as a social being or almost a co-worker, and they talked about Baxter as if it were another person," she said.

"They unconsciously attributed human-like characteristics."