Source: PCMag / S.C. Stuart – December 10, 2019
The Guardian XO robotic exoskeleton from Sarcos merges man with machine, giving the person inside super-human strength and reducing wear and tear on the body.
On a recent visit to the Salt Lake City headquarters of robotics firm Sarcos, I strapped on a crash helmet, safety glasses, protective torso shield, and—finally—an upper-body exoskeleton test unit.
I was there for a private preview of the company’s new Guardian XO full-body powered exoskeleton, and while the engineers took me through the motions of lifting weights my human arms could never handle, I had a sensation of transcending biology—and yes, it felt as good as that sounds. While wearing the test unit I felt like Tom Cruise or Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t resemble either, sadly.
While other companies have pursued robots that will replace workers, Sarcos took a different route. They built a humanoid-style robot, then essentially hollowed it out, allowing a person to step inside, merge with the machine, and operate at superhuman strength.
After my own demo ended, I stood behind the safety cordon and watched a member of the Sarcos team carry 200-pound weights with no visible strain, and walk easily inside the Guardian XO throughout a mocked-up industrial area. I then sat down with Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff, who told me how this piece of technology came about. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
Despite my Edge of Tomorrow fantasies, the Guardian XO is designed for logistics, not combat, right?
[BW] Yes. Most people don’t know that the US military maintains one of the largest and most complex logistics and support operations in the world to support our troops in the field—from construction to manufacturing; maintenance and repair; warehousing; transport of weapons; supplies and ammunition. The constant loading and unloading causes enormous strain on the body. I read somewhere that there are 27 million days lost each year in the Army, not through combat, but entirely due to injury on the job. We think that the Guardian XO can really contribute to rectifying this situation.
Has the DoD confirmed how many units they’ll be leasing from you?
We’re not talking specific numbers, but we have publicly announced that the military will be acquiring some of our exoskeletons for logistics purposes for both the Air Force and the Special Operations Command.
There’s a long history of exoskeleton R&D, stretching back to the mid-80s. What’s different about the Guardian XO? It’s certainly a different form factor to the one I saw on the factory floor at Ford Motor Company in Detroit.
Unlike other exoskeletons in development, or already in the market, the Guardian XO is a full body exoskeleton that supports all of its own weight PLUS the weight of whatever payload it is carrying. Many of the others, like the one you saw at Ford, are partial, not full-body. Some partial-body exoskeletons help people with lower body injuries walk again, and others support the upper body to allow someone to hold a tool for longer periods. But there’s nothing on the market like the Guardian XO, which is a fully functioning wearable humanoid robot, working in conjunction with a human worker inside it. It’s an entirely different vector.
It felt surprisingly easy to wear because it really does take all the load. How many degrees-of-freedom is it and what’s it made of?
The Guardian XO has 24 degrees of freedom, allowing the human worker to move intuitively, fluidly and naturally. It’s a combination of different materials—the primary load-bearing structure is made out of metal alloys, and parts of the commercial version will involve some advanced composite elements.
Although Sarcos is a defense contractor, your primary sales pipeline will be industry, right?
Yes, aside from defense, the Guardian XO wearable robot is relevant to many global industry sectors including automotive, aviation, construction, logistics, manufacturing of all types, oil and gas, public safety, and utilities.
What’s your business model? Robot-as-a-Service? And cost justification?
Right. The Guardian XO will be offered via a robot-as-as-service (RaaS) plan, and, in terms of return on investment, the XO can enable an individual employee to do a lot more, with more strength, endurance, and precision, all while reducing costly occupational injuries.
How much does a unit cost?
It depends on how many Guardian XO units are involved in a contract, but we’ve priced it out at approximately $100,000 per unit, per year when multiple units are deployed to a single location—which is about how much a single employee costs, paid at $25 per hour, when you add in taxes, benefits, overhead, and G&A [general and administrative] expenses.
In 2017, you let me ‘drive’ the Guardian GT robotic ‘tank’ using an earlier prototype of the Sarcos exoskeleton. I remember feeling the force response and how that contributed to the way I learned to tele-operate the unit. In a similar vein, the Guardian XO could take all the weight, but your engineers said it was important for the human inside to feel something.
We’ve done a lot of research in Human Robotic Interaction (HRI) and it’s essential to have a sensation of the force being handled by the exoskeleton. By wearing the XO, a human operator has the ability to have a 20-to-1 strength enhancement, lifting up to 200 pounds easily. We can make that feel like zero through our “gravity compensation” technologies, but we’ve found that operation of the XO is more intuitive if the operator feels a 5 to 10 pound load.
Otherwise they could forget their new human/machine combined strength?
Exactly. You require some degree of awareness and perception of what you’re lifting to know how to move correctly, but without putting you under any stress or strain.
Previous humanoid robot design centered on being both tethered and an external power source. But the Guardian XO runs on a battery pack. How long does that last?
It can last up to 8 hours on a single charge. Like the mileage possible on an electric car, it depends on the environment and circumstances, of course.
In the early 1980s, Sarcos was spun out of the University of Utah, which is renowned for its work in robotics, then it was part of defense contractor Raytheon for many years. Tell us how you got to where the company is today.
At Sarcos we have a rich legacy of innovation including advanced humanoid robots, NASA spacesuit-testing equipment and prosthetic limbs. For several years (2007 to 2014), Sarcos operated as the robotics division of Raytheon, focusing almost exclusively on developing cutting-edge technologies for use by US governmental agencies. Then, in January 2015, I joined and partnered with the management team to complete a management buy-out, later bringing in financing from Caterpillar, GE Ventures, Microsoft, and Schlumberger. Today, Sarcos is majority-owned by its employees.
Getting philosophical for a moment, would you say that the Guardian XO allows people the tremendous opportunity to extend their career lifespan?
Definitely. It takes a lot of time and effort, both by employees and their employers, to develop true expertise in complex jobs that require highly skilled employees. Unfortunately, in many jobs that involve high levels of physical exertion, our bodies start to physically wear out just at the time that our experience, wisdom, and judgment are at their peak. With the XO, we think we can substantially extend the time that people can safely undertake physically demanding work, so that both employees and employers can reap a greater benefit of the time and effort invested.
Plus physical injury often leads to opioid use.
We sincerely hope that the Guardian XO can go some way towards stemming the awful tide of opioid addiction within the workplace by preventing injuries in the first place, so that opioids don’t need to be prescribed.
Talking of industry, can you confirm which companies have purchased Guardian XOs to alleviate injury within their human workforces?
We have publicly announced that we are working on specific use cases and developing specifications with a variety of different industrial partners including Caterpillar, BMW, Delta Airlines, Schlumberger, Bechtel, and GE. But we have not yet disclosed which companies are the first to put the Guardian XO to work.
Finally, you believe that the Guardian XO is a better solution than full autonomy. Can you explain why?
It is better in certain circumstances. Many people have realized that there’s a huge difference between autonomous AI within a 2D environment and deploying it within the real world, especially when not in a fixed/caged situation. The real world has too many variables for true mobile autonomy in unstructured or unconstrained environments. Machines are not good at complex physical-world unstructured challenges, or problem-solving within physical spaces, like humans are. But humans are frail compared to robust machines, especially when doing repetitive tasks over decades. So we are convinced that a wearable co-bot model is best for many applications that don’t involve repetitive tasks, utilizing the best of human intelligence with machine strength.
S.C. Stuart was a guest of Sarcos for this press trip to Utah.