Meet the robots taking on tasks we'd rather not
One day we’ll look back at the world before our robot overlords took over and wonder why we got them cleaning windows and flipping burgers…
Whether you can see them or not, robots are everywhere, and not always in the most obvious places. In his new book WE:ROBOT: The robots that already rule our world, David Hambling explores some of the robots that hide behind the scenes doing everyday tasks that are either too difficult or dangerous for us humans to achieve. Here are three of more than 50 robots highlighted in the book, which tackle everything from work, war and the world of the future.
GEKKO Façade Robot
Construction material: Plastic
Main processor: Commercial processors
Power source: External mains electricity
City centres across the globe are taking on the same look: whether in the Far East, the heart of Europe or the United States, each now boasts a cluster of glass-sided skyscrapers as a badge of its commercial success. Window cleaning, however, has failed to keep pace with advances in architecture, and workers wielding sponge mops still work from suspended platforms to keep the vast areas of glass free of city grime – until now, that is, with the arrival of the GEKKO Facade Robot.
Invented by Swiss company Serbot AG, the GEKKO Facade Robot is the world’s first window-cleaning robot for large vertical surfaces, provided as part of a package of building care. Like a human window cleaner, a GEKKO is lowered from the top of a building on ropes, and has a hose connection to a water supply and suction cups for stability. The difference lies in the speed and agility with which the GEKKO works. The disc-shaped robot has two tracks, with ten suckers each, that ‘walk’ along the face of the building, keeping the robot securely attached, even when buffeted by the wind. The GEKKO does not need guide rails or other aids to find its way around, and its traction allows it to climb over horizontal and vertical surfaces, inclines and even overhangs that are impossible to reach by normal methods.
The GEKKO can raise or lower its cleaning arm to bring it into contact with the window glass. The arm contains a series of rotating brushes, like those of a carwash or street cleaner, which do a more thorough job than manual cleaning. The makers claim that it uses less water than traditional cleaning methods, and the powerful brushes mean that no detergent is required – so it is ecofriendly, to boot.
The benefits of the GEKKO Facade Robot are manifold. Operators can control the robot using a joystick, or can set it to function automatically. This means that the manpower needs are minimal, and it is possible for a single worker to clean an entire skyscraper. With GEKKO cleaning 600 square metres of glass in an hour, it is around fifteen times as quick as a typical human. And, of course, there is no need for tea breaks, but the potential for longer shifts. When the cost of cleaning a large building can run to eighty thousand pounds, these benefits can amount to significant savings.
Not only that, but the window cleaning of tall buildings is inherently dangerous. Even when there is no perceptible breeze at ground level, the wind may be gusting at 30mph (48kmh) one hundred storeys up.
Skyscrapers towering 305m experience powerful winds, and require giant internal pendulums, called tuned mass dampers, to prevent them from swaying perceptibly. The occupants may never be aware of the windspeed outside, but window cleaners feel the full force and accidents are common. Thanks to its suction feet, the GEKKO can operate in winds that would keep human cleaners grounded.
There is also a growing awareness of security in the business world. Passwords and firewalls may be mandatory, but if a window cleaner appears outside a meeting room during a presentation of plans for a new product launch, then such precautions may be wasted. GEKKO may ease such concerns. The robot also guarantees discretion when cleaning high-rise apartment buildings or hotels where guests may leave the curtains open to enjoy the view. This may be one of the few areas in which we are more comfortable with machines than humans.
There is no sign of the trend for glass-walled skyscrapers abating, and the tallest buildings still attract a premium. Architects are aware of the need to create landmark buildings with unusual shapes, which create challenges for traditional cleaning methods. The GEKKO also scores here, specifically on the quality of its work. By their nature, skyscrapers tend to be prestige properties, and companies pay a hefty premium for showpiece offices with spectacular views. Any dirt stuck in the window rims undermines the whole effect. GEKKO’s rotating brushes and machine consistent cleaning ensures that not one corner is missed. The days of hearing someone say ‘you missed a bit’ could be over as the GEKKO finds its habitat expanding in the coming decades.
Construction material: Steel
Main processor: Intel NUC5 17 RYH
Power source: Battery
There are no prizes for guessing that PIBOT, short for PIlot roBOT, is a humanoid robot that sits in the pilot’s seat and flies an aeroplane. What you might not guess, however, is that this robot is not set on autopilot, but actually uses the controls, just as a human would.
To build PIBOT, Professor David Hyunchul Shim and his colleagues at KAIST (formerly Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) took a systematic approach to automating the task of piloting. His team broke piloting down into three areas – recognition, decision and action. They then developed the necessary hardware, machine intelligence and sensory software for a robot to carry out each of these.
PIBOT operates the controls, including the throttle, stick and pedals, and reads the dials and gauges just as a human pilot would. Unlike most drones, PIBOT is not remote-controlled, but flies the plane itself without any human involvement. It even uses the radio to talk to air-traffic controllers giving the same information and responses as a human pilot.
First demonstrated in 2014, the original PIBOT (PIBOT 1) was a scaled-down version based on a low-cost commercial robot, the Bioloid Premium. It successfully flew a complete flight in a flight simulator, from turning on the engine and releasing the brakes, to taxiing, take-off, flying a predetermined route, and finally landing safely at the destination. This small android also flew a model aircraft. Some human assistance was necessary for landing, as the vision software still needed tweaking, but the exercise demonstrated that the concept was sound.
PIBOT 2 is a full-size humanoid robot. It costs around $100,000 to build, and is a fully functioning replica of a pilot. The arms and legs have six degrees of freedom and the hands another five. As well as cameras for eyes, PIBOT has cameras in its hands to aid with locating the controls. Like the earlier version, it has proven itself on a flight simulator. Shim’s team are now working through PIBOT’s responses to emergency situations, especially those that are not pre-programmed.
There is already a demand for this type of machine. The US Air Force is looking for a ‘drop-in robotic system’ that users can install quickly without modifying an aircraft to convert if from manned to unmanned operation. Shim’s technology provides the starting point. The Air Force plan to use the robots for routine cargo transport flights and refuelling missions. In the longer term, the robots will take on more challenging intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations (ISR). Given that unmanned aircraft are likely to be sharing airspace with manned planes in the near future, rules and standards allowing machines to fly may need to change.
Pilot robots may also find a role in the commercial world. Current regulations require a pilot and a copilot for every flight – the latter to step in in an emergency and to provide a second opinion. Commercial planes used to have a third crew member, the flight engineer, who monitored the instruments and calculated fuel consumption, among other tasks. Automated systems have already replaced flight engineers, and copilots look set to go the same way. Pilots are skilled and highly paid individuals, making them expensive to hire and to train. PIBOT offers an alternative, with low costs and steady improvement with each software upgrade. The skill needed to fly a new type of aircraft is just a download away, and PIBOTs can move from one type to another without any risk of getting confused.
While it is unlikely that airliners will fly without an onboard human pilot any time soon, it is worth remembering that most air crashes are caused by human error. The commonest accident type, ‘controlled flight into terrain’, where a pilot runs into a mountain or hillside, usually happens because the pilot ignores or misunderstands instrument readings. In years to come, passengers may well feel safer knowing that there is a PIBOT in the cockpit rather than a fallible human.
Height: 2m, estimated
Weight: 200kg, estimated
Construction material: Steel
Main processor: Commercial processors
Power source: External mains electricity
Fast food restaurants operate on an assembly-line basis. Offering a limited range of items means that orders can go through a fixed series of stages from raw ingredients to ready meal. Given the routine nature of the work, and the cost of employing staff, it was inevitable that entrepreneurs would develop a robot to take over the entire process.
Toppings – tomatoes, onions, pickles – are stored in tubes and sliced fresh just before being placed on the burger. The irregular sizes and textures of toppings are a challenge for a machine, making this one of the hardest tasks to automate. ‘Cutting tomatoes is a b*tch’, says Alex Vardakostas, one of the company’s cofounders. Vardakostas is an engineer whose family runs a restaurant, typical of Momentum Machines’ focus on food and technology. Though buns are easier to deal with, they still require a carefully designed track with sensors and a cutting blade for slicing them and separating the halves. Dispensers squirt precise quantities of ketchup, mayonnaise or other sauces. Finally, the cooked burger, bun and toppings are assembled and bagged. Even the bagging mechanism, which involves a moving paddle to transport the burger into the bag, required considerable thought to ensure that the process was reliable and would never produce a squashed burger.
Alpha produces 360 finished burgers an hour, keeping waiting times to a minimum and serving burgers as fresh as possible. Momentum Machines’ goal did not stop at turning out identical products, as McDonald’s does; they wanted every burger to be customised. This could mean a different blend of meat in the patty – for example, having twenty per cent pork or lamb; it could mean a bigger or smaller burger depending on appetite; and the machine is loaded with a selection of speciality cheeses, as well as its wide range of toppings. The company has patented a feedback system to improve service. Customers rate their burgers, and their preferences – say, more cheese and less pickle – are recorded, so Alpha knows what to offer them next time.
Keeping humans out of the kitchen has its advantages. The staff working at the front counter never need to touch any food, so hairnets, gloves and other measures required for hygiene standards can be dropped. Customers need never worry about whether someone in the kitchen is coughing or sneezing and spreading infection, or whether the knife used to slice raw bacon is also chopping onions. Alpha occupies much less space than a normal kitchen, so the dining area can be more spacious. And the developers claim that some of the cost savings from having fewer members of staff will be used to buy better ingredients, to produce ‘gourmet-quality’ burgers at fast-food prices.
The first version of the Alpha burger-bot was producing burgers to order with ninety-five per cent reliability in 2012. Since that time, the company has kept quiet about developments, but in 2017 they raised venture capital to open their first restaurant, and acquired a location in southern San Francisco.
If Momentum Machines succeeds, other fast-food outlets are likely to follow suit with robot cooks. There will always be a premium on food prepared by a human chef at the high end of the restaurant business, but when it comes to fast food, the priority for consumers is the end product. If there is a demand for customised burgers, or if robots can turn out a better burger for less, then expect to see a lot more robots in the kitchen.