As Robots Fill the Workplace, They Must Learn to Get Along

So many robots work at Changi General Hospital in Singapore that until recently it wasn’t uncommon to find two delivery bots sitting in a hallway or outside an elevator in a standoff.

Such impasses used to happen “several times a day,” says Selina Seah, who directs the hospital’s Center for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technologies. Unsure how to move around another object, or human passersby, the robots would simply freeze, each waiting for the other to move first. “The humans would have to actually go down and pull them apart,” she says.

Seah says Changi has about 50 robots, from eight manufacturers. As at other hospitals, robotic systems assist professionals with delicate surgical procedures and guide patients through surgery and rehabilitation exercises. At Changi, dozens of mobile robots also perform tasks like cleaning or delivering medication, supplies, and patient notes. But they’re not good at communicating with one another.

The standoffs at Changi offer a glimpse of a future problem for many businesses, as multiple robots, from different makers, struggle to navigate within the same busy spaces. Besides health care, robots are rapidly being adopted in manufacturing and logistics and are starting to appear in stores and offices.

To alleviate the standoffs, Changi is using software developed by Open Robotics, a nonprofit, to let robots from different manufacturers talk to each other and negotiate safe passage. Open Robotics maintains the Robot Operating System (ROS), open-source software that is widely used to develop commercial and research robots; the software Changi is using allows robots not based on ROS to communicate as well.

Open Robotics hopes such free and easily modified software will be widely adopted and enable greater interoperability of workplace robots. “Open source has real potential to allow lots of different organizations” to work together, says Morgan Quigley, a cofounder of Open Robotics and its chief architect.

Worldwide shipments of robots have grown steadily over the past decade or so, though they’ve slowed recently due to trade tensions and the pandemic. The number of industrial robots, such as the robotic arms found on manufacturing lines, in use rose 85 percent to 2.7 million in 2019, compared with 2014, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group. Sales of new industrial robots fell in 2019, but sales of service robots, including delivery and cleaning bots, rose 32 percent that year, according to the IFR.

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