Given there are millions of robot vacuum cleaners out there in the world sucking up all the crumbs, dirt and dog hair in our homes, vacuuming is either the one job humans really can’t stand doing on a universal level, or simply the only job we’ve figured out how to pass off onto robots with any real success — though mopping and mowing may not be far behind. Either way, these robots are making our home lives easier.
Now, after nearly two decades in our homes, robot vacuum cleaners are making their way into the world of work, too. Whiz, an autonomous vacuum cleaner introduced in North America in 2019 by the Japanese company SoftBank Robotics, is working in hotels, senior living facilities, schools, universities and hotels, with more than 20,000 units deployed globally, according to Kass Dawson, SoftBank Robotics’ vice president of brand strategy and communications.
Just like at home, these types of robots, which are commonly referred to as collaborative robots, or cobots — because they work alongside humans — are freeing up their human coworkers to focus on more high-value tasks while improving employee satisfaction, Dawson told Built In.
What Are Cobots?
How Cobots Are Being Used Across Industries
For years, cobots have largely gone unseen in the world, working behind the scenes in manufacturing facilities loading and unloading parts into machines, and in the logistics sector moving and delivering items to different areas in a warehouse. Increased employee safety and efficiency were, and still are, key drivers of adoption in those sectors, though cobots have shown their value in other industries, too, like healthcare, where they work in operating rooms assisting surgeons.
But more recently, cobots have been venturing outside warehouses, factory floors and operating rooms and into the service sector where they’re making coffee, serving food and drinks, and like Whiz, cleaning. Driven in part by the pandemic, cobots’ more public-facing entry into the service sector may be bolstered even further by ongoing labor constraints.
“Looking at scenarios where you have labor shortages and what industries are being heavily hit, this is where we’re gonna start to see more adoption, more appreciation and more focus from the robotics industry,” Dawson said.
The restaurant industry is one area hit hard with labor shortages and a sector Dawson believes could see greater adoption of cobots. “The serving robots that are out there right now, I think are going to continue to showcase what automation can do for that industry.”
Today, in a number of its restaurants, Chili’s is testing a cobot developed by Bear Robotics called Rita, which supports staff by seating customers, delivering meals and singing to diners on their birthday, though the restaurant chain announced in August that they were pausing Rita’s rollout to focus on sales and traffic, according to a Restaurant Business report.
“Looking at scenarios where you have labor shortages and what industries are being heavily hit, this is where we’re gonna start to see more adoption, more appreciation and more focus from the robotics industry.”
But while Chili’s is tapping the brakes, other chains are inviting cobots into their kitchens and dining rooms. Chipotle recently announced further testing of an autonomous kitchen assistant dubbed Chippy — designed by Miso Robotics, the company behind Flippy and Sippy — which cooks tortilla chips for customers using artificial intelligence and the chain’s recipe and technique.
“Everyone loves finding a chip with a little more salt or an extra hint of lime,” Nevielle Panthaky, Vice President of Culinary, Chipotle said in a March press release. “To ensure we didn’t lose the humanity behind our culinary experience, we trained Chippy extensively to ensure the output mirrored our current product, delivering some subtle variations in flavor that our guests expect.”
According to a press release from Chipotle in September, the chain is testing Chippy in one of its California locations before potential wider adoption nationally.
For cleaning cobots like Whiz, the pandemic has been a boon to adoption — not only do they offer an automated, contactless cleaning solution, customers or guests often see them in action so they can trust cleaning is actually happening. And in a tight labor market, these cobots free up workers to complete more high-value tasks that they may find even more enjoyable, which Dawson believes is one of the biggest benefits to using cobots, along with the “return on experience” — a phrase dubbed by one of SoftBank Robotics’ customers, Dawson said.
“I’ve seen firsthand guests in hotels taking pictures or videos as the robot runs by, or their kids wanting to race it,” Dawson said. “That really helps tell a story that there is more openness or appreciation, which ultimately leads to acceptance of robots, as opposed to the Doomsday, Terminator, this thing is coming and the robots are going to take over and own the world [scenario]. I feel like we’re in a place now — still early stages — where we’re gaining acceptance from the masses.”
Making Cobots Even More Collaborative
While cobots will likely continue making lives easier for staff in a number of industries, and greater adoption in the service industry is to be expected given labor shortages, researchers like Giuseppe Loianno, an assistant professor of robotics at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and director of the Agile Robotics and Perception Lab, are trying to make them even more collaborative with humans and one another.
He and his colleagues are studying how algorithms used in a single robot or cobot can be scaled across a whole team of cobots, working with small aerial robots like drones, and ground-based robots that can work in hazardous, and sometimes confined, settings like search and rescue and environmental monitoring where movement may be constrained.
For Loianno, the challenge lies in helping cobots share information efficiently so they can complete their task. “Sometimes you have a lack of communication, or you cannot communicate, so how do you make these algorithms fully distributed with minimum communication?” he said. “I think that’s one of the major challenges, and the challenges exponentially increase as soon as the robots are free to navigate with respect to each other.”
Much like it does when it comes to helping humans and cobots work together more efficiently, though Loianna believes one way to overcome those obstacles to efficiency is through transparency. “As soon as you don’t have this property, the robot feels that the human is a disturbance,” Loianno said. “And the human feels that the robots are a bottleneck.”
What Does the Future Hold for Cobots?
For cobots like Whiz, not being a disturbance to humans is a key objective. It uses sensors to recognize when humans are approaching or close by, emitting a gentle alert in a kind of “Hey, just wanted to let you know I’m here” type of way and uses a turn signal, a polite gesture to those people who appreciate knowing where moving objects might be headed next. “These are clearly important things that go into the minutia, if you will, that goes into the development of a robot,” Dawson said.
Dawson sees the future of cobots in the workplace shifting even more to a single task, forgoing a general purpose approach that is ultimately inefficient and prone to not meeting the (often overly inflated) expectations of humans.
“We should be treating it more like a computer than like a vacuum cleaner. And that’s an important evolution of how we’ve gone through our deployments and getting people to understand that the success of this and the continued adoption of it is tied to how it’s being treated.”
And there’s been a realization that the “true value” of automation rests in identifying one simple task that can alleviate “pain points” in our work environments, according to Dawson.
“Technology is getting better,” he said. “But I think the robotics community is also getting better at understanding how to build and deploy these things for the markets in which they’re doing business.”
But the future of cobots also relies on human acceptance and ultimately how we will treat our robot coworkers. Will we look at cobots simply as tools, or will we think of them as the robots, and technological advances, that they are?
“We need people to understand and appreciate it as a technology,” Dawson said of Whiz. “We should be treating it more like a computer than like a vacuum cleaner. And that’s an important evolution of how we’ve gone through our deployments and getting people to understand that the success of this and the continued adoption of it is tied to how it’s being treated.”