Why Robots That Move Like Acrobats Can Interact More Closely With Humans

These tiny bots hang from the ceiling and keep out of the way of people

  • New robots can hang from the ceiling. 
  • The RigBots are meant to interact more closely with humans. 
  • Experts say new robot designs are needed to perform more complex tasks. 
Close up on a new RigBot robot that moves around the ceiling.

AxLab / Computer Science Department / University of Chicago

Robots are getting up close and personal. 

Researchers from the University of Chicago are building robots that can better physically interact with humans and their surroundings. Experts say a new wave of bots is needed to take on duties ranging from security to household chores. 

"Robots were originally designed to do heavy, repetitive tasks," Tim Paton, a manager for the robot manufacturer ABB Robotics, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Because of this, robots were put behind cages intended to keep people safely removed from robots actively in motion. At the same time, however, it was clear that there are instances when people need to get close to the robots to do tasks like maintenance, repair, and cleaning."

Robots That Get Closer

Two new prototype robots have been developed at the University of Chicago’s AxLab with under-utilized ceiling space in mind. AeroRigUI uses tiny bots that use strings controlled by self-propelled robots, called RigBots, to change a physical object’s position and orientation in the air, the way acrobats move around at an aerial circus. 

The tiny robots can be programmed to travel along the ceiling’s surface with an object so that they can help with everyday tasks. For instance, the RigBots could follow a person around at home with a ceiling light, tilting and angling it as needed to shed light on a specific area. 

"Ceilings are a necessary part of most buildings, but they are currently an underutilized area in our everyday space,” Ken Nakagaki, a professor of computer science who led the project, said in the news release. "Robots on floors or tables can easily bump into humans and other obstacles, where ceilings can be a solution… we found ceilings to be one of the unexplored research spaces for deploying interactive mobile swarm robots.”

The new robots created by Nakagaki and his team are a sign of how far robot technology has progressed in the last decade, especially in the area of safety, Jim Lawton, the vice president and general manager for robotics automation at Zebra Technologies, said in an email. Some robots have developed enough to be no longer caged to protect workers. 

"The ability for people and robots to work in close physical proximity has radically changed how work is done in manufacturing, warehousing, and logistics operations,” he added. 

The ability for people and robots to work in close physical proximity has radically changed how work is done...

The Future of Robot-Human Interactions

Industrial robots for use in factories have become common, but when will you have a robot in your home that can cook and clean? The reality is that the future is a long way off because robots don't yet have what it takes to perform those kinds of tasks, Lawton said. 

Think about all the steps and knowledge it takes to make a pan of brownies—even from a box, Lawton pointed out. A robot would need the ability to collect all the ingredients, assemble them in the correct order, determine the mix looks right, put it in the oven, watch to be sure the batter cooks exactly right, take the pan out, cut them into serving portions, and share them. 

"The senses needed include smell, taste, touch, hearing (for the timer)—and, most importantly—critical thinking and problem-solving," he added. "We are a ways away from a robot that can do all those things and bake the perfect batch of brownies."

Payload capacity is one limitation that future research could address, Nakagaki told Lifewire in an email. Currently, RigBots can support up to about two pounds of weight, making using them challenging. 

"As our present work serves as the initial proof-of-concept prototype for this exciting research direction, future robots could incorporate a robust locking mechanism to securely attach to the ceiling when anticipating tangible interaction from users," he added. 

Digidog, the RC K-9 robot used in New york City for hazardous situations.

NYC Mayor's Office

Despite the technical challenges, some robots already walk the streets and interact with people. The New York City Police Department recently deployed a robot dog called Digidog for situations that may pose a threat to humans, helping to do things like perform inspections in dangerous areas.

Cornell University researchers also put robot trash cans on the streets of the Big Apple to see how people reacted to them. The reaction was surprisingly positive. 

Correction 4/27/2023: Corrected the spelling of a source's name in paragraph 7.

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