Easy machines: friendly robots that provide a helping hand

With machine assistants in the ascendent, we take a look at the latest in human-robot collaboration and discover a drive to make our automatons as unthreatening as possible

The architecture practice Foster + Partners has a new companion animal in the form of the Boston Dynamics-designed robot dog, Spot. With just four legs, a torso and an impressive sensor array, Spot has the potential to transform how buildings are constructed. More commonly used in industrial areas where it wouldn’t be safe to use human agents, Spot has been tasked with overseeing construction at the Battersea Power Station site in London.

Programmed with a pre-determined route, Spot regularly walks the site once workers have gone home, scanning the progress of the work to build a ‘digital twin’ that can be used to compare the design to the built reality. This helps the architectural team to quickly identify any issues and adjust the plan to account for these variations. The practice envisages that the robot could have wide-ranging uses in the future, from construction monitoring through to scanning occupied projects to understand how spaces are used day-to-day. Just don’t ask it to fetch.

A friendly face

The idea of working side by side with a robot can spark feelings of unease, either from the fear of being replaced or from the uncanny sense of alive-but-not-alive. Research has indicated that making a robot emotion-aware – or at least appear to be – can improve the outcomes of human-robot collaboration. The designer Joonhyuk Hong has proposed an anthropomorphic element in his Emotional Collaborative Robot Concept to make it appear more interactive and approachable.

This is a trick that has been used by designers of self-driving cars and other automated machines to trick us into viewing them as a friendly presence. Hong proposes the addition of a simple display that acts as the robot’s ‘face’, with soft curved lines and a range of pre-programmed expressions to make it appear less threatening. If Spot is ever going to be used to patrol occupied offices, it may be worth them teaminng up.

A video of Spot the dog in action can be found here.

Read Imogen Privett’s complete design round-up in our Innovation Zone here

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Imogen Privett is a Senior Research Associate in WORKTECH Academy. An architectural designer and researcher, she holds degrees in both History and Architecture. Imogen has worked in architectural practice focusing on workplace design with projects including UK headquarters for Barclays, Macquarie Bank and Reuters
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