CES 2020: Robotic super suit brings strength to airport apron

Sarcos Robotics has teamed up with Delta Air Lines to take the strain out of heavy lifting.

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In 2018, I wrote that Sarcos, a robotics company headquartered in Utah, was developing a robotic exoskeleton that would fundamentally change how heavy lifting is done on job sites. With an announcement today that Sarcos has partnered with Delta Air Lines to bring its super suit to airline personnel, that prediction is coming to fruition.

Sarcos' suit, called the Guardian XO, is essentially a robot that workers wear. It enables average people to lift and expertly manipulate loads well in excess of 100 pounds using natural body movements. For many years, the weight and capacity of batteries has limited the potential for an untethered, all-electric industrial suit, but Sarcos engineers seem to have cracked that nut with novel control and power management techniques.

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Namely, my best guess is that the suit is passive, meaning that it doesn't use energy when standing still. That simple twist is a game changer in robotics. For years, hulking robotic arms used tremendous amounts of energy actuating their joints to hold a single position. By reducing power consumption to almost nil at rest, and by utilizing state of the art batteries and power management, it's my conjecture that Sarcos has made an end run around the bedeviling problem of building an untethered super suit for the common man. 

To understand why this is a game changer, think of the suit less like a power assist device and more like a forklift that you wear. By bearing the weight of the suit and the payload, the exoskeleton lets an employee to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue. One obvious application is loading cargo, a job that's familiar in the airline industry.

"We owe it to the best airline employees on the planet to explore how emerging technology can make their jobs safer and easier," said Gareth Joyce, Delta's Senior Vice President – Airport Customer Service & Cargo. "That's why we sought out a partnership with Sarcos."

Delta is the first company whose frontline employees have worked directly with Sarcos to determine potential operational uses for the Guardian XO. In November, Delta people representing Airport Customer Service and Cargo visited the Sarcos headquarters to see it in action and explore how wearable robotics could potentially benefit them in their everyday work.

The Guardian XO is designed for use in industries where lifting and manipulation of heavy materials or awkward objects is required and isn't easily handled by standard lift equipment. Potential uses at Delta could include handling freight at Delta Cargo warehouses, moving maintenance components at Delta TechOps, or lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment.

Delta plans to test the technology in a pilot location during the first quarter of 2020, giving employees the opportunity to experience the tech in a real-world setting and provide additional feedback on its functionality.

"We look for companies who are clear leaders in tech adoption and have a history of innovating to meet the needs of their customers and their employees," says Ben Wolff, Sarcos CEO. "Delta is the natural fit in the airline industry and has proven to be a great partner as we work to fine tune this technology for commercial deployment."