Robots these days are very good at working on their own. If everything they’re working with is in the expected place, they can work efficiently without direct human control. Newer computer vision and machine learning technology can even help them work under varying conditions autonomously. But robots are still bad at working in unison with humans — so much so that it’s often dangerous to even attempt in real world factory conditions. That may change soon, thanks to a robotic lifting system developed by researchers from MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory).
The goal of this system, called RoboRaise, is to allow robots to work with humans in the same way that humans work together. In factory environments, pairs of humans often perform coordinated work to lift, place, and mount heavy components. For instance, a pair of woodworkers might lift a tabletop together and place it on top of a table frame. Humans are able to coordinate their efforts easily, to the point where it’s almost a subconscious action. We automatically mirror our partner’s actions to ensure we share the load and keep it stable while lifting.
RoboRaise is designed to do the same thing, and does so by monitoring its human partner’s muscle activity. EMG (Electromyography) sensors are placed on a person’s biceps and triceps, which lets the system see how much they’re raising their arm. As they do, the robot lifts its side of the object the appropriate amount to mirror the human. For fine adjustments, like changing the angle of the load, the person can use small up-and-down hand gestures. In testing, RoboRaise performed well with 10 different users. By adding additional EMG sensors, the team hopes to eventually make RoboRaise capable of performing more complex tasks in unison with humans.