Editor’s Note: Robert Playter is CEO of Boston Dynamics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, industries that did not previously pose a health and safety risk to workers – such as package and food delivery, travel, hospitality and even energy, transportation and construction – now do. Many of these jobs can’t be accomplished through Zoom, requiring a physical presence. So employers are looking to technology to help protect their workers from infection. They are relying on technologies like mobile agile robots to do the myriad of jobs that require a physical presence so human workers don’t run the risk of getting sick.
This pandemic-inspired partnership of people and machines is one that I believe will long outlast the pandemic itself and redefine the future of work.
Pairing robots that can do the physical work with humans that provide true intelligence, perception and the ability to make decisions can enable work to continue in environments that would otherwise be unsafe or simply unpleasant for humans.
The result of this pairing is only as effective as the robot itself. An organizing principle of our work at Boston Dynamics has been to create machines that have some of the physical intelligence that we humans tend to take for granted. Negotiating a cluttered room without tripping, climbing stairs, opening a door or stacking boxes becomes automatic to us humans once we grow beyond the toddler stage. But these basic physical skills have been beyond the capability of most mobile robots until recently. In understanding both the capabilities and limitations of robots, we can better visualize a role for them within the workplace that augments, rather than replaces, human labor.
There are already a number of applications in which robots and humans work in tandem, with robots assuming the risky, tedious or physically demanding parts of the job while a human co-worker, possibly located remotely, provides critical judgment and guidance. Ford, for example, is pairing a robot with engineers to map its facility and create digital blueprints. Aker BP, an oil exploration and development company, is exploring how robots can assume risky tasks on offshore operations.
Health care is an obvious, but impactful use of robotic technology as well. Robots can’t get sick so using them in certain circumstances could help protect both health care workers and patients. First responders, for example, can now use robots to interact with Covid-stricken households and collect vital signs.
Retail and delivery companies have explored using robots and drones to sort or deliver packages for years. With Covid risks, the need for this technology became immediate. Using robots to handle the last-mile delivery of packages and limit human interaction, for example, not only helps protect drivers, but it also reassures customers. Last year, DoorDash announced the use of a food delivery robot and FedEx announced a rollout of an autonomous delivery robot. Health concerns will only accelerate such adoption of robotic technology.
Essential services, like electricity generation and construction, are also now using robots for repetitive and tedious inspection tasks while reserving critical judgment for a human operator located safely in a remote control center. They are incorporating robotics with unprecedented speed and integrating the technology into the regular responsibilities of site managers and project leads. The impact has been profound: What often amounted to weeks or months of work can now be streamlined into days.
Rather than seeing robots as threats to manual labor and entry-level positions, the pandemic is requiring us to think about how technology can augment and even improve our current jobs. When a solution – like agile mobile robots – proves to be useful for today’s health and safety challenges, but is also versatile enough to be easily adapted for tomorrow’s need for a scaled workforce, it is well positioned for widespread and sustained adoption. The pandemic may have sped up the partnership between robots and humans, but businesses will ultimately see the long-term payoff of keeping this technology in place long after the pandemic is over.