As robots fill the workplace, they must learn to get along


So many robots working at Changi General Hospital in Singapore until recently it was not uncommon to find two delivery robots sitting in a hallway or outside an elevator in a dead end.

Such deadlocks happened “several times a day,” says Selina Seah, who runs the hospital. Center for Assistive Technologies and Healthcare Robotics. I don’t know how to move around another object, or human passers-by, the the robots would simply freeze, each waiting for the other to move first. “The humans should actually come down and separate them,” she said.

Seah says Changi has about 50 robots, from eight manufacturers. As in other hospitals, robotic systems help professionals with delicate surgical procedures and guide patients through surgical and rehabilitation exercises. At Changi, dozens of mobile robots also perform tasks such as cleaning or delivering medications, supplies, and patient notes. But they are not good at communicating with each other.

The dead ends at Changi offer a glimpse of a future problem for many companies, as several robots, from different manufacturers, struggle to navigate the same occupied spaces. Besides healthcare, robots are rapidly being adopted in manufacturing and logistics and are starting to appear in stores and offices.

To mitigate dead ends, Changi uses software developed by Open robotics, a non-profit organization, to allow robots from different manufacturers to talk to each other and negotiate a safe passage. Open Robotics manages the robot’s operating system (ROS), open source software which is widely used to develop commercial and research robots; the software that Changi uses also allows non-ROS-based bots to communicate.

Open Robotics hopes that this free and easily modified software will be widely adopted and allow greater interoperability of robots in the workplace. “Open source has real potential to enable many different organizations” to work together, says Morgan Quigley, co-founder of Open Robotics and its chief architect.

Global robot shipments have grown steadily over the past decade, although they have slowed recently due to trade tensions and the pandemic. The number of industrial robots, such as robotic arms found on manufacturing lines, in service increased by 85% to 2.7 million in 2019, compared to 2014, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industrial group. Sales of new industrial robots fell in 2019, but sales of service robots, including delivery and cleaning robots, increased 32% that year, according to the IFR.

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