Hands On With Sarcos’s Iron Man–Style ‘Guardian’ Robots
Sarcos Robotics is best known for its work on DARPA exoskeletons, but now it’s moving into the commercial realm with investors including Caterpillar, GE Ventures, and Microsoft.
I’m in a Salt Lake City technology research park standing behind a massive dual-armed industrial robot, the Guardian GT. It’s the size of an all-terrain vehicle with the outward appearance of an armored tank.
An engineer from Sarcos Robotics hands me a pair of safety glasses and a lab coat. I step onto the platform, slip my left hand into the electro-mechanical remote operator, curl my fingers around the trigger, and stand up strong and straight, ready to feel the force. I kick the release catch with my right foot and tense every muscle in my body.
The Guardian GT’s diesel engine roars to life. It’s a beast of a machine, designed for operational use within hazmat environments, such as nuclear power reactors, and can lift payloads up to 1,000 pounds. As I raise my left arm, the 7-foot left actuator on the robot lurches menacingly. I squeeze down on the trigger, and its end effectors twist, waiting to sense my physical cues and undertake the task at hand.
The modified COTS-tracked base can travel at 4mph but, wisely, the Sarcos Robotics team have suggested a stationary experiment for the eight journalists and analysts invited to its Utah headquarters.
This is my first attempt at tele-operating a giant robot. However, the robot’s end effectors soon feel like natural extensions of my limbs. I move and the robot mimics me. My task is removing a piece of equipment from a nearby stand and putting it back (the latter is a lot trickier) before dismounting. I remove the safety glasses (in the field, operators wear AR glasses), and let the next person have a go.
Dr. Fraser Smith, Sarcos Robotics President, told PCMag why the company believes less in full automation and more in keeping a human in the loop for highly dexterous robotics.
“We really appreciate the aspect that humans represent in terms of bringing intelligence into the workplace, taking advantage of that life experience,” Dr. Smith explained. “With the Guardian GT, the human gets to do what they want to do, and the robot doesn’t stop them, so the control algorithms, and the sensor suites, are responsible for you being able to move naturally. We have a patent on ‘get out of the way control’ and we pioneered that a long time ago, checking the interfacial force between man and machine, in all directions. You want to have it move out of your way wherever you go — you want to keep that interfacial force at zero.”
An essential aspect of feeling at one with the Guardian GT robot was that I could sense the exertion from the robot, albeit at a very reduced level.
“Working alongside neuroscientists, to develop robotic prosthetics, was how we got our start,” explained Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO. “So we understand, at a very deep level, the relationship between man and machine, to create an intuitive connection.”
“That’s right,” agreed Dr. Smith. “And we’ll typically feed back the force reflective aspect to the human operating the machine at a comfortable ratio that can be adjusted from 1 to 1 to 100 to 1. The point is that for most useful things, you’re after proportional information to understand the amount of force being applied to the object, without giving them a load to handle.”
Sarcos Robotics was founded in 1983 to pursue bioengineering research and is best known for its work on exoskeletons for DARPA, alongside other biomimicry robotic systems for NASA, AT&T, Boeing, MIT, and Xerox PARC. It became part of Raytheon, primarily working on military contracts, for over a decade, until a consortium — led by Wolff, Dr. Smith, and Dr. Marc Olivier — acquired the business in 2014.
“Today if you walk into the lobby of DARPA, you’ll see a lot of innovations they’ve invested in over the years, and you’ll see Sarcos products on their display wall. We’ve been one of their top funded small companies for over 30 years,” said Wolff.
To date, Sarcos Robotics has invested over $260 million, reached $350 million in revenues, and holds 300 patents. Wolff led a recent $15 million investment Series A round from a range of investors including Caterpillar, GE Ventures, Microsoft, and Schlumberger, in order to take the company into the commercial realm.
“Microsoft is very invested in AI today — they’re interested in how Sarcos is capturing data while augmenting human endeavor — so we’re partnering with them on HoloLens, cloud services. In fact, their whole suite of services is very relevant to our work, and they’ve been a great investor in our company.”
During a tour of the Sarcos mechanical engineering labs, we spotted six iterations of exoskeletons tethered in a hallway, and a more recent version going through marching motions while strung up on a harness. In a nice popular culture homage, there was a life-size Iron Man cutout lounging in an empty office.
Between floors, a sign on one of the internal doors read “Attention! Snakes in training.” This was for the Guardian S, a situational awareness robot designed for tactical operations support, which we saw in action next.
As a mobile IoT platform, with cloud connectivity, Guardian S weighs 16 pounds, so it can (just about) be hoisted onto your shoulder and deployed in dangerous areas from a range of 2,000 feet away via a rugged digital tablet. It moved easily across uneven terrain and, due to its high-res infrared video cameras and AI-based internal mapping software, navigated up an open staircase without any mishaps.
Guardian S can be equipped with remote sensing capabilities to identify chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive materials, can identify victims trapped under rubble and, due to IP67 certification, can be submerged in liquid environments for up to 30 minutes. It’s been deployed in search and rescue missions, as well as embedded with SWAT teams. If you have a spare $60,000, you can order one today from Sarcos Robotics (custom modifications are extra).
The big reason Wolff, Smith, and Olivier bought the company out of Raytheon was so they could focus on commercial customers. Next up is the Guardian XO, a highly modified version of the DARPA exoskeleton, designed to address the problem of workplace injury outside of military operations; it’s coming to an industrial warehouse near you in late 2019.
“We think there’s a huge market for reducing injury on the job, as well as augmenting human strength,” explained Wolff. “One hundred billion dollars in the US are spent on injuries caused to the back each year — that’s a huge market for us to solve.”
As Sarcos executives showed us around the various exoskeleton models they’ve made since 2000, they explained how the Guardian XO, and its higher-end XO MAX version, allow the human inside to feel supported, and lift heavy payloads of up to 200 pounds without exertion, strain, or injury. However, due to the suit’s full body power, workers won’t experience inertia/metabolic drag. Essentially, the human is encased inside a robot that can be operated for two to eight hours on a single charge.
So, just like Iron Man?
“Well,” laughed Wolff, “Yes, in that it’s energetically autonomous, and can supply the energy needed to lift and accomplish tasks, but no, in that we haven’t yet invented an Arc Reactor.”
“We don’t know of any other company working on a full body powered exoskeleton for industrial purposes,” Wolff continued. “Most have focused to date on passive exoskeletons for endurance, or rehabilitation after surgery. We’ve been working on this exoskeleton product, in different iterations, for 17 years, and we feel it’s almost ready to go.”
Sadly I didn’t get to try on a Guardian XO — it’s still very much in development. But I’d be totally up for that when they’re ready for commercial rollout in late 2019. In the meantime, if you’re in Florida, Sarcos Robotics will be putting some of their robotic devices through their paces at the SWAT Round-Up in Orlando from Nov. 12–14.
Sophia was a guest of Sarcos Robotics for this press trip to Salt Lake City.
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.