Utah-based tech company aims to reduce workplace injuries using robots
This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
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With a virtual reality headset strapped to her head and controllers clutched in her hands, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall ordered a robot to wave to the watching crowd. Each movement made by Mendenhall, the robot reproduced it with precision. When she moved her eyes, the robot did the same. When she extended her arm, a robotic arm mimicked.
Mendenhall was experiencing the latest artificial intelligence creation from Sarcos Technology and Robotics Corporation, a Utah-born tech company located in the Granary neighborhood of Salt Lake City.
Before using the deft remote-operated Guardian XT robot on Wednesday, Mendenhall applauded the company for influencing the plan for “Tech Lake City” by helping to transform the area into an “innovation district.”
The Granary district is historically known to be the industrial heart of the city. That’s changing as more tech companies move into the neighborhood. However, Mendenhall predicted the growing nature of technology in the city would bolster career opportunities for the Salt Lakers.
“We care deeply about connecting these well-paying, highly mobile jobs to members of our community,” she said, “who have been too disconnected from this growing economy.”
And the Guardian XT pays homage to the neighborhood’s roots. Instead of building a robot to deliver food or detect airport security threats, Guardian XT extends a mechanical hand to trades.
Some occupations like construction, power line maintenance, and forklift driving require humans to risk their lives to complete the job. But Kiva Allgood, CEO of Sarcos, says the main goal of their technology is to “prevent injuries and save lives” by reducing workplace accidents.
The first step in reducing workplace accidents is to minimize the awkward situations employees are placed in that could result in loss of life. In 2020, 5.3% of all electrical incidents were fatal, according to The Electrical Safety Foundation International. Of these deaths, 33% were between the ages of 25 and 34.
However, the Guardian XT has the ability to cut a live wire without electrocuting someone, for example.
With its two claw hands, the robot can remove a worker from climbing a skyscraper in order to paint the siding. It can also operate power tools in various situations. The Guardian XT, which Allgood says is female but has yet to choose a name, also has the ability to lift heavy materials up to 200 pounds.
Not only is the robot capable of performing life-saving tasks in hazardous environments, Allgood noted that it could help reduce the wear and tear of commercial tasks placed on the human body.
“If you’re constantly riveting or doing a job that causes a lot of vibration,” she said, “it causes a lot of damage.”
But with the help of a skilled worker, the Guardian XT can perform these tedious tasks and prevent the body from collapsing.
“There are jobs that we put humans in that we just shouldn’t put humans in, but we have no choice,” Allgood said, “and now we do.”
Evolution of the workforce
One of the fears of innovation in automation is the possibility that it could reduce job opportunities. In the case of Sarcos, Guardian XT is intended to work with humans in different business professions, not to replace them. The robot must be operated by a person.
“We are increasing the workforce by not replacing the workforce,” Allgood said. “We’re reducing the amount of stress, we’re reducing the amount of damage they put themselves in.”
With human remote control, Guardian XT can perform hazardous tasks in hazardous environments. Operators use their natural movements, instincts and judgment to control the robot in risky human situations.
“Users control the robot using their natural reflexes, instincts and judgment to perform complex tasks in unstructured and often dangerous environments, while keeping the operator out of harm’s way,” Sarcos’ website states.
The current labor shortage is only expected to worsen, especially in skilled trades such as construction and manufacturing. In fact, over the next decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there will be 54.8 million job openings for skilled labor as labor -current workforce begins to retire.
But Allgood thinks adding robotics to industry actually improves the business profession. The technology also opens the door for people with physical disabilities to work in the commerce industry since workers do not have to climb buildings themselves.
“To be honest with you, a lot of people, especially the next generation, the idea of being a robot operator is a lot sexier,” Allgood said with a chuckle.
And if becoming a robot operator sounds like a dream job, Allgood says the company is hiring. Sarcos expects the Guardian XT to be ready for purchase in 2023.